There are gifts and there are curses and the perception is that these things are held far from each other, polar opposites, balancing forces.
The year the gift came to Arlen Wagner, the year the curse came, the year good and evil merged and blurred and the world tilted away from his understanding in such a fashion that it would never regain balance again, is remembered in those mountains as the year of the fever and the war. At least, that is, by those who remember it at all. Few do. It’s folklore now, an old tale of the old towns, and anyone who connects the name Wagner to the year of the fever remembers Isaac Wagner, not Arlen. Isaac is the father, the lunatic. Arlen is the boy, the son, the one who did right.
Perception, you see. Perception.
The fever came through that summer, the summer the bloodshed in Europe increased and the calls for American aid rose with the toll. Boys from the mining towns left for war, and such thoughts were supposed to occupy the townspeople, but then the illness came, and the sorrows of a world across an ocean seemed ever more distant. Isaac Wagner, the town undertaker, the coffin-maker, was a busy man. In July, 19 died. In the first week of August alone, 22 more joined them. In the second week of August, only five passed, the worst of the fever burning itself out, but among those final victims was Isaac’s own wife. It was this, the locals said, that broke the man.
His son, Arlen, believed them.
Summer faded alongside the sickness and the autumn leaves fell and then the year edged toward winter, Christmas carols sung again in the town but with a solemnity this season, the plague of the summer far from forgotten.
It would be a hard winter, the townspeople said, but it could not be as hard as the summer. Summer had taken so many.
For Arlen Wagner, summer had taken one slice of his youth. Winter would take all that remained.
The first signs of concern had come in those blistering weeks when the gravediggers were busy and Arlen’s mother took ill and died swiftly. Isaac was spending more time in his shop, particularly at night, when visitors were unlikely. The shop was located beneath the room where Arlen slept, and the sounds drifted up, barely muffled by the thin layer of wood that separated them. He’d long known the sounds of the tools on the wood – his father’s paying job, other than a bit of small-time farming, was as a furniture maker – and sometimes Arlen could also hear Isaac humming to himself or occasionally speaking bits of German, his mother tongue. The conversations, however, were a new twist.
They began not long after Arlen’s mother died, and they occurred only when Isaac was outfitting a casket. On those long and lovely weeks when no one passed in the town and some level of peace was restored, his father’s workshop was silent. Then death would strike, the townspeople would call upon Isaac Wagner, and he would sequester himself and begin to work – and speak.
Arlen told himself that it was a grieving process, his father struggling with the loss and attempting to find a way to cope just as Arlen was himself.
He ignored the conversations.
For as long as he could.
Those floors, though, were so thin. His father’s voice, so deep, so strong. The words carried, and Arlen could not help but hear. It was not many weeks before he began to pay attention, and the phrase he heard uttered again and again raised a prickle across his spine.
Tell me, Isaac Wagner would say. Tell me.
The more Arlen listened, the more evident it became that his father was trying to speak to the dead. Not only that – he believed he was. The words that left his mouth were parts of an exchange.
There had been several of the conversations before Arlen chanced a trip down to the shop to see for himself. What awaited him was chilling: Isaac spoke with his hands on the corpses. Stood above them and placed his palms flat on their chests or on either side of their heads. When he’d talked himself out, he removed his hands and returned to work and fell silent. Always he was silent unless he had his hands pressed against their dead flesh.
He was a different man outside of the shop, as well – both with Arlen and the townspeople. Moody and unpredictable, given to perplexing statements and a constant tendency to dismiss the worries of the living.
It was a few months before Arlen could admit that his father was losing his mind.
Rumors began to swirl through the town after a teary-eyed man came to the shop with a child’s toy in his hand, prepared to ask that it be buried with his daughter, and found Isaac in his now-customary pose, standing above the body with his hands on the dead girl’s head like a preacher offering a blessing. The sight rankled the grieving father, and while no more than a heated exchange of words took place, with Isaac taking no steps to pacify the man, simply saying that he’d talk aloud in his shop if he were so inclined, to whomever he liked, it added coal to the fires of suspicion already smoldering throughout the town.
What did you do with a father who was insane? The question haunted Arlen through his days and kept him awake through his nights. It was just the two of them now; there was no other family in the town, Isaac had led the way to this place, and Arlen’s mother had been unable to conceive after giving birth to her first and only child. No confidant existed. He listened to his father speak to the dead and thought of what might happen if he sought help, if he told anyone in town the truth, and he decided that it would be better to keep silent. There was no harm being done. It was strange, certainly, unsettling and troubling, but it wasn’t harmful. He promised himself that if it ever became so, something would have to be done.
It was a day on the fringe of Christmas when Joy Main died. Three nights of frost had been followed by a final gasp of warmth that faded behind a cold wind and no one in the town had passed in three weeks. Isaac was making furniture instead of coffins, and Arlen had been allowed to slip into something close to a peaceful state. At night his sleep was uninterrupted by voices from below, and the dark rings around his father’s eyes had lessened, his strange remarks becoming fewer. Then they brought Joy Main’s body to the shop.
The Mains were the power family in town. Edwin’s father had been a surveyor – and a damn shrewd man. He asked for, and received, acreage instead of wages, and he had a fine eye for land, acquiring large parcels along the river and through the gorges that bordered it. It was coal and timber country, beautiful land that was soon to become rich land, and by the time Edwin was grown the mining boom was underway and the property he inherited made him a wealthy man. He stayed in Fayette County and filled his father’s void. He was large and pompous and charming when he had cause to be. At other times he was harsh and cruel, but the townspeople seemed to believe you could expect that from your leaders.
Joy Hargrove was the most beautiful girl in the county, bright and clever, a gifted piano player and blessed with a haunting, gorgeous voice that turned heads at Sunday services. The marriage was of the arranged sort – Joy’s father was vying for purchase of a promising mine. The courtship was strongly encouraged despite the fact that Edwin was past forty and their daughter just seventeen, and it was only a matter of weeks before Joy Hargrove became Joy Main.
They were married for seven years before her death, and during that time she bore three children and grew increasingly quiet, seeming content to offer formalities and then retreat within herself. She was well known in Fayette County but yet not really known at all.
On that December evening when they brought her to the Wagner house just as the burst of warmth from earlier in the day was disappearing with darkness, Joy Main was a week past her twenty-fifth birthday and dead of a fractured skull.
Edwin came with her, tears in his eyes and the sheriff at his side. He explained that Joy had come out to the stable to see him and a horse had bucked and thrown a sudden high kick, a rear hoof catching his bride square in the head.
He’d shot the horse, Edwin explained in a choked voice, and then sent for the sheriff. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do, shooting that horse, but he couldn’t help it. There needed to be blood for blood.
Arlen had heard it all from inside the house, the men standing on the porch with the body at their feet, wrapped in blankets. When Edwin told the story, Isaac Wagner said, “You had the mind to shoot the horse while your wife lay dying?”
The sheriff stepped in then, told Isaac that Edwin was a grieving man, damn it, and there’d be no such questions, who cared a whit about the horse at a time such as this? Isaac had said nothing else but Edwin Main watched him with dark eyes and Arlen, standing at the window, felt the coldness pass through the glass just like the wind that had returned out of the northern hills.
Isaac gathered the body in his arms and prepared to carry Joy Main back to his shop. Edwin spoke up again and told him to make it the finest coffin he’d ever constructed; anything less would be a sin, and how much the box might cost mattered not, he’d pay any price.
Isaac told him that every coffin he made was a fine one.
It wasn’t long after they’d left that Arlen heard the dreaded phrase from his father’s shop: Tell me.
This time he crept to the door. Usually he tried to clear himself away from the sound, but there’d been such tension in the air tonight, with his father asking that question about the horse and Edwin Main staring him down.
Not her, Arlen thought, of all the ones in town for you to speak with, not his wife. We’ll be run out of this place if anyone knows, chased into the darkness and the snow.
The talking persisted, though, and it horrified. Isaac Wagner was pretending to hear an explanation of murder.
“He laid hands on the servant? That girl’s no more than fifteen, is she? He intended to violate her? Did she see what happened after? What did he strike you with? Had he beaten you before? Did the children see? Did anyone see?”
Arlen stood at the door and heard it all and felt a trembling deep in his chest that intensified when Isaac said, “I’ll see that it’s dealt with. I’ll see that he has a reckoning. I promise you that; I swear it to you.”
Arlen opened the door and went into the room then and shouted at him to stop and what he saw was more terrible than he’d imagined. Isaac had lifted the dead woman and placed her hands on his own shoulders so that he could easily look at her face. There was still blood in her hair and her eyelids sagged halfway down but the hint of blue irises remained and seemed to stare over Isaac’s shoulder and into Arlen’s own eyes.
“She’s telling me what happened,” Isaac said. “Don’t be afraid, son. She’s telling me the truth.”
“She’s not,” Arlen screamed, “she can’t speak, can’t tell you a thing, she’s dead! She’s gone!”
“No,” Isaac said, “the body is gone. She is not.”
Arlen stood in the door and shook his head, tears brimming in his eyes. Isaac lowered the body slowly and very gently, then turned to face his son.
“I have to touch them to hear,” he said. “There are those who don’t, those who can conjure without needing a touch, but I’m not one of them. Maybe in time. It took me many a year to reach them at all. I suspect you’ll find better luck. What’s in me is in you, Arlen, but stronger. It’s stronger and I’m certain of that.”
“Stop,” Arlen said. “Stop, stop, stop.”
“You don’t believe,” Isaac said. “Those who don’t believe can’t hear.”
Arlen told him he was mad. Told him that they had to find an escape from this before it claimed them both, that they would leave town that winter and find a new place, a happier place, one where the memories would not cut at Isaac’s brain in such a way that these mad thoughts came to exist.
Isaac listened patiently, and shook his head.
“My burden is here, son. We all need to understand our tasks. There’s a war on, we’ve spoken of it often, the burdens those men in the field bear for the rest of us. Well, I’ve a burden to bear for those here. The dead will speak and I will hear them and when they ask something of me, I will provide what I can. I’m prepared to do it. And you will need to be as well. You’ve got a touch of the gift yourself. I’m sure of it. I see it in you.”
“No more,” Arlen said, backing away through the door. “Don’t say any more.”
“Look past your fear,” Isaac said. “It’s about doing what’s right. This woman was murdered, beaten with an ax handle and killed, Arlen! That demands justice. I’ll see that it’s delivered. I’ve promised her that. And if there’s anything I hold sacred it’s a promise to the dead.”
Arlen turned and ran.
He spent close to two hours in the wooded hills, stumbling through the underbrush with hot tears in his eyes and terror in his heart. He wondered if his father was still down there with Joy Main or if he’d gone off in search of the promised reckoning. The longer Arlen walked, the more certain he became that he could not allow such a thing to take place.
You’ve got a touch of the gift yourself, boy. I’m sure of it. I’ve seen it in you.
It was that statement more than any of the others that drove him out of the woods and back into town, where candles glittered and Christmas wreaths hung from the doors. His father was insane – the dead could not speak to the living; they were gone and nothing lingered in their stead – but Arlen was not insane. He was not and he wouldn’t ever be.
Let Isaac Wagner bear his own shame, then, and not put the stain on his son as well. If Isaac would show the world that he was mad, his son would show himself to be of the soundest mind, no matter the price. Your actions in the face of conflict defined you, and the time for such action had come.
The sheriff was home, and he stared with astonished eyes while Arlen told his tale. When it was through he gathered himself and thanked Arlen for coming down and told him to go on home and wait.
“I’ll come for him shortly,” he said. “And you did the right thing, son. Know that. You did the right thing.”
Arlen went home. He waited. Isaac was back in his shop, silent. Arlen did not enter, and his father did not exit, and the minutes passed with slow, scalding agony.
Thirty minutes had gone by before the sheriff came, and then he wasn’t alone. Edwin Main was with him, wearing a long duster to fight the chill night wind. When Arlen saw them approaching he felt sick. Why had the sheriff told him anything? This was a matter for the law, not for the grieving man.
They came through the door without knocking and saw Arlen standing there and asked where his father was. He pointed an unsteady hand at the closed door of the shop.
They went in for him. Arlen stayed outside, hearing the exchange, Edwin Main shouting and swearing and Isaac speaking in deep, measured tones. When they emerged again, Isaac was handcuffed.
Isaac looked over and locked eyes with Arlen and his face was so gentle, so kind.
He said, “You’re going to need to believe. And something you need to know, son? Love lingers.”
They shoved him out the front door then and off the porch and down into the dark dusty street. Arlen trailed behind. Edwin Main was still shouting and offering threats. They’d gone a few hundred feet before Isaac spoke to him.
“You killed her,” he said, “and it will be proved in time. We’ll talk to your house girl and to your children and they’ll tell me what Joy already did.”
Edwin Main went for him then and sheriff stepped between them. Edwin was a big man but Isaac was bigger, and he stood calm and looked at the screaming widower and didn’t seem troubled by him.
“You struck her with the axe handle,” he said. “She’d run out of the house to get away from you and you chased her into the yard and killed her there. Then you dragged her into the stable so there’d be blood in it, and you shot the horse because you believed it would add credence to your tale. That’s what happened. That’s the truth of it.”
Edwin Main shook free of the sheriff’s grasp. The sheriff stumbled and fell to his hands and knees in the road as Edwin reached under his duster and drew a pistol. Arlen cried out and ran for them, and Edwin Main cocked the pistol and pointed it at Isaac’s head from no more than two feet away.
Isaac Wagner smiled. Edwin Main fired. Then Arlen was on his knees in the road and his father’s blood ran into the dust and the wind blew down on them with the promise of coming snow and Arlen’s heart ached from the weight of the curse his family had been given.
They mourned for Joy Main that week in the town, and for Edwin and his loss. They mourned for the Main family as a Christmas snow fell and a war surged across the Atlantic. Arlen Wagner wasn’t there to see the mourning, but he was on his way to see the war.
He was gone by the second day after his father’s death. He enlisted in a recruitment office far from his hometown, where his name would not be known. Lied about his age and joined the United States Marines Corps. The Marines needed good men, sound of mind and body, and Arlen Wagner was sound of mind and body. He would cross the ocean, and there he would fight evil.
It was June, a season apart from those terrible days, a season of new terrible days in a new land, when Arlen found himself in a place called the Belleau Wood, beside a river called the Marne, and his comrades fell around him as the machine guns thundered.
That was the bloodiest battle the Marines had ever encountered, a savage showdown requiring repeated assaults before the parcel of forest and boulders finally fell under American control, and the bodies were piled high by the end. The sight of corpses was not the new experience for Arlen. No, in the moonlight over the Marne River on a June night in 1918, Arlen saw something far different from a corpse – he saw the dead among the living.
They’d made an assault on the Wood that day, marching through a waist-high wheat field directly into machine gun fire. For the rest of his life, the sight of tall, windswept wheat would put a shiver through Arlen. Most of the men in the first waves had been slaughtered outright, but Arlen and other survivors had been driven south, into the trees and a tangle of barbwire. The machine guns pounded on, relentless, and those who didn’t fall beneath them grappled hand-to-hand with German soldiers who shouted oaths at them in a foreign tongue while bayonets clashed and knives plunged.
By evening the Marines had sustained the highest casualties in their history, but they also had a hold, however tenuous, in Belleau Wood. Arlen was on his belly beside a boulder as midnight came on, and with it a German counterattack. As the enemy approached he’d felt near certain that this skirmish would be his last; he couldn’t continue to survive battles like these, not when so many had fallen all around him throughout the day. That rain of bullets couldn’t keep missing him forever.
This was his belief, at least, until the Germans appeared as more than shadows, and what he saw then kept him from so much as lifting his rifle.
They were skeleton soldiers.
He could see skulls shining in the pale moonlight where faces belonged, hands of white bone clutching rifle stocks.
He was staring, entranced, when the American gunners opened up. Opened up, and mowed them down, sliced the vicious Hun bastards to pieces. All around him men lifted their rifles and fired and Arlen just lay there without so much as a finger on the trigger, scarcely able to draw a breath.
A trick of the light, he told himself as dawn rose heavy with mist and the smell of cooling and drying blood, the moans of the wounded as steady now as the gunfire had been earlier. What he’d seen was the product of moonlight partnered with the trauma from a day of unspeakable bloodshed. Surely, that was enough to wreak havoc on his mind. On anyone’s mind.
There were some memories in his head then, of course, some thoughts of his father, but he kept them at bay, convincing himself that this was nothing but the most horrifying of hallucinations.
The curse had tracked him here, but he would not crumble beneath it. He would not.
It was not yet dawn when the dead began to whisper. Softly. So softly. He was down in a trench and pressed against his leg was a good boy from Kentucky, a tall blond kid who had once had a high, chirping laugh that sounded like a strange bird and could lift a smile to even the most fatigued soldier. Now he had a gaping hole torn through his throat and jaw, and the last sounds he’d made bore no resemblance to the laugh and lifted no smiles. His had been an anguished passing.
Now, his body cooling against Arlen’s leg, he began to whisper.
Arlen rolled away as if he’d leaned against glowing coals, then asked his fellow soldiers, his fellow living soldiers, what they heard.
Nothing, he was told. The enemy was out there, but they would wait until dawn to strike. For now, his comrades explained, the woods were silent, and the Americans were safe.
The dead disagreed. The dead warned of an approaching battalion, moving through the night woods like phantoms, unseen but soon to be deadly. And Arlen Wagner, his flesh cold as it had been on the winter night when he’d refused a curse, decided to accept a gift. He reached for a dead man’s hand, the blood cool now but still damp, and squeezed it tight.
Tell me, he whispered. Tell me.
Originally published in German.