by Tom Breen
Robinson Hale’s big break came courtesy of a book he bought from a bum in a shabby overcoat selling battered hardcovers from a blanket in Tompkins Square Park.
Hale liked the dust jacket – a stylized illustration of a man in what looked like a Pilgrim costume holding his hand up and averting his face from the viewer. Curious Lore and Customs of the Connecticut River Valley by Abel Pitkin looked almost contemporary, but it was published in 1929.
The book proved to be a treasure for Hale, who had been trying to place stories with America Bizarrica, the popular weird travel website within the vast “lifestyle platform” empire of Tub, once a scabrous fanzine and now a company that took in millions of dollars and put out high-quality Internet content for affluent people under 34.
America Bizarrica published long-form essays, photo slideshows, and crisply-edited video, and the only remit was to be strange and different, not just in tone, but in content from all the other “off the beaten path” and “weird America” sites with their gormless reports of giant balls of twine or the plaque marking the spot where George Washington once ate an entire onion. Best of all, America Bizarrica paid, and paid well.
The odd old collection of tall tales, folklore, and vituperative asides about local customs turned out to be Hale’s way over the wall of indifference that had greeted all of his previous queries to the website.
Like many similar collections published at the time, Pitkin’s looked backward, as electricity, indoor plumbing, and the automobile remade America, sweeping away folkways that in some places had endured since before the Revolution. But whereas many of his contemporaries looked back with nostalgia or tried, however vainly, to argue for the preservation of old customs, Pitkin seemed relieved that “the barbarous ways and verminous superstitions” of the country from Brattleboro south to Old Lyme were passing away.
He regarded with particular loathing two obscure towns in the valley, Orford Parish in Connecticut and Leeds in Massachusetts. While the book treated most of the region’s residents with condescending comedy as bumpkins, scolds, or credulous oafs, Pitkin’s tone sharpened when describing the folkways of Leeds and Orford Parish, and his descriptions took on the character of sermons preached by that famous Connecticut River Valley divine, Jonathan Edwards.
Hale, though, was thrilled to read of Secret New Year in Orford Parish and the grotesque procession through Leeds on All Hallows’ Eve; of King-Kill House and Sorrow Falls and the Devil’s Wallet; of rituals to make rivals impotent and stories of witches who persisted long after the Salem days.
It was particularly exciting when Hale discovered there was relatively little written about the towns online. The weird travel sites seemed to be unaware they even existed, and in the major newspaper archives he could find only a scattering of short stories about crimes or disputed local elections.
With visions of a four-figure check dancing in his daydreams, he made his first trip north from Williamsburg one summer, to cover Orford Parish’s annual Fourth of July parade or, as the town called the event, “the Procession of Antique Horribles”. When the Bizarrica editor saw Hale’s video of grotesque costumes, fire eaters, drunks in Boy Scout uniforms sleeping on the sidewalk, and the leering, goatish effigy of Thomas Jefferson (“God of Democracy”) paraded through the town at the climax of the berserk celebration, he not only accepted the piece on the spot, but promised to pay for anything “half as weird”.
Following that success, Hale sold three more pieces to the website, all based on things Abel Pitkin had written back in 1929: “goblin money” on the streets of Leeds; Orford Parish elections in which only children could vote; and a phenomenon, in the Connecticut town, in which mayors seemed to disappear with alarming regularity.
In addition to paying his rent, the articles were starting to make a name for Robinson Hale, as they were picked up, rewritten, and spread to other websites, and the Internet began to awaken to the wondrous strangeness of Leeds and Orford Parish. Hale was amused to see his articles had even been noticed in the towns themselves: shortly after his fourth article was posted on America Bizarrica, he read online a letter to the editor of the Orford Parish Vituperator, the town’s shrill, eccentric daily newspaper, in which Hale’s piece was denounced by a reader.
“These fine fellows in Brooklyn City can chortle all they want at the good people of Orford Parish and Leeds, but they should be watchful, lest they find the joke is on them,” the letter concluded.
“Always nice to encounter a fan,” he wrote when tweeting out the link to his growing number of followers.
Two days later, Hale was on the road north from New Haven, crafting in his mind the book pitch about the towns he was sure a publisher would pounce on.
His new story would be the first to directly tie the two towns together, inspired by a passage in Pitkin’s book about something called “wolf stones”:
The early settlers of New England, much afraid for the disposition of their dead, would, in some remote places, resort at times to laying huge stone slabs lengthwise over freshly dug graves. The utility of this practice was in protecting the mortal remains of the deceased from wolves, which in those days prowled the region in great packs, and would, in times of scarce victuals, resort to digging in churchyards for flesh, however corrupt. This was at a time when almost no one was buried in a coffin, and when the proverbial ‘six feet deep’ was scarcely to be found in that rocky and unforgiving soil.
Wolves were extinct from southern New England by 1745, and the frugal Yankee, ever desirous of saving money and labor, was happy to lift the wolf stones from the grave and put them in the countless miles of stonewall that still girdle this part of the world. And so wolf stones followed wolves, and were gone from New England by the time of the Revolution. Today there are only a handful of these stowaways from history that remain in churchyards; a wolf stone in Old Mystic, Conn., and one at York Village in Maine. And there are two in the valley, in those unhappy towns, Leeds and Orford Parish.
The reason the stones have remained at Old Mystic and York Village appears to have been forgetfulness initially and historic preservation latterly, but the reason they are planted still in Leeds and Orford Parish differs, as those towns must. Such things cannot exist in places like Leeds and Orford Parish, pestilential villages fatted on unwholesome deeds, without black rumors attaching themselves, and indeed, it is attested very early in both places that the objective in placing the heavy slabs on the graves was not to keep wolves out, but to keep whatever was buried beneath from rising again.
Pitkin’s book gave the location of both stones, a Google search told Hale the two cemeteries were still extant, and with a terse but encouraging email from his editor, he was on his way from Brooklyn one bright morning in February.
The trip did not begin well. His experience in the Orford Parish cemetery – a tiny burying ground established in 1702 that was located on a twisty, forlorn road in the hilly southern end of town – was mildly unpleasant, and as he drove north on I-91 to Leeds, he consoled himself with the thought that at least it would make a decent anecdote for his story.
When he had arrived at the Connecticut burying ground, he had been nonplussed to find the wolf stone – easy to spot, exactly where Pitkin said it was – surrounded by a group of teenage girls, dressed in their age group’s uniform of skinny jeans and hooded sweatshirts. Not wishing to engage them in conversation, he pretended to study some of the other old stones in the cemetery, nearly all of which were eaten by lichen and cracked by centuries of New England winters, although on one he could make out the epitaph “And now Lord God almighty, true and just are all thy ways, but who can stand before thy cold?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he was startled to see the girls wriggling their jeans to their knees, and taking turns sitting on the wolf stone. He recalled Pitkin had said the stone was seen locally as a cure for infertility – actually, Pitkin had written it was seen as a cure for fertility, but surely that had to have been a typo. As Hale debated whether to try and get interviews about an apparently living folk custom versus the potential for being seen as a creep, a chunk of rock landed near him, and he heard sharp, mocking laughter from the gaggle of teenagers.
A Roman candle of panic went off inside Hale as he recalled Orford Parish had a reputation quite apart from the quirky, macabre superstitions recorded by Pitkin, one rooted in the mundane terrors of heroin and unemployment and violence. But the girls, having achieved whatever end they had in mind with the wolf stone, apparently threw the rock as a parting shot, for they soon left Hale alone in the cemetery to take his photos and hurry back to his car.
It was nearly 3 p.m. when he coasted into the center of Leeds, his phone’s GPS signaling that he had arrived at his destination, although the gnarled, tiny churchyard spotted in Google Streetview was nowhere to be seen. Instead, what confronted him at the address was a small, shabby brick building with a convenience store occupying the ground floor, a hand-written sign proclaiming “We Got ATM $ Cash” in the window.
Parking on the street, he looked in vain for anything that looked like it might be a churchyard, or park, or green space. Probably the convenience store clerk would know where to look, he thought, as he pushed the door open.
Inside, he found a tiny store whose wares appeared to have been organized by a tornado. Items seemed to have not so much been placed on shelves as flung there, and if there were some taxonomy to how they were arranged, he could scarcely imagine it.
There was no one behind the counter but standing in front of the beer cooler was a man plunked somewhere along the timeline of a hard middle age, regarding Hale with a dazed expression. The man clutched a plastic bag in one hand as the other attempted to hitch up his baggy, stained trousers, the cuffs of which engulfed the shoes he was wearing. An untucked dress shirt, garlanded with food stains, and a battered grey hooded sweatshirt completed his look, along with a stink that Hale registered as the likely bouquet of homelessness.
“Hi,” Hale mustered, in the politeness with which he had been raised. “Do you work here?”
“Roger’s taking a dump,” the man said in a glottal voice.
“I’m sorry?” Hale asked.
“Roger. The owner,” the man said, very slowly, as if each word were costing him money. “He’s taking a dump. He told me to watch the store while he’s out taking a dump. Hadda go across the street, ’cause he don’t have a can here.”
“Ah, okay,” Hale said. “Well, maybe you can help me out. I know this is going to sound weird, but I’m looking for a peculiar kind of old-fashioned gravestone. People, I guess, used to call it a ‘wolf stone’.”
He was about to elaborate further, but the man’s eyes flickered at the last two words.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “Only, we call it something different. We call it, ah, that is…” and here he trailed off, as if thinking too hard about something.
“So…you know where it is?” Hale asked, the impatience in his voice almost imperceptible.
“Oh, sure,” the man said. “It’s in the basement.”
Hale paused, and his hopes plunged.
“Oh,” he said. “So, they removed the stone and … put it in storage?”
“Oh, no,” the man said, smiling to reveal a set of small, yellow teeth. “No, nobody’s ever removed that stone. No, you see, you see, ah, they used to, this whole block used to be a churchyard, you see. And then when they built up this block, they moved all the graves down the street, only they didn’t move that stone. They just built the building over it.”
This was better than Hale could have dreamed. You couldn’t get more America Bizarrica than that. His hopes were tempered only by his suspicion that the man before him was drunk, brain-damaged, or both.
“Is it something people can go see? Or should I wait for…Roger to come back?” he asked.
“Oh no. Go on down. The basement’s right there,” the man said, motioning over his shoulder to a narrow door on which a New England Patriots calendar from 2007 had been tacked and never removed.
Nodding, Hale tried to hold his breath as he squeezed past the man, only to exhale when his interlocutor held up the plastic bag he had been clutching. The smell from the bag was even worse than the stink coming off its owner, and Hale could see the insides of the bag were streaked with brown gore.
“Hey,” the man said. “You wanna buy some spare ribs? Best in town. Cut these just this morning. Make my own sauce. Ten bucks.”
“Uh, thanks, but maybe when I come back up,” Hale said, hurrying past.
He heard the man chuckle as he descended the stairs, flicking on a light switch as he went. When he reached the bottom, the basement was much larger than he had imagined, stretching not only under the convenience store but perhaps the whole block. Some areas of it were ringed with iron picket fences about three feet high, while stone slabs leaned against the whitewashed walls as far as the light would let him see.
About 20 feet from the staircase was a grave like the one he had seen in Orford Parish: a headstone resting on a dirt floor, with a white stone laid lengthwise over it. Removed from the burying ground setting, it looked like an art installation, and Hale forgot the unpleasantness of his encounter upstairs as he paused before it, trying to read the inscription on the wolf stone.
He traced his fingers in the shallow grooves, and mouthed the words he thought he felt there. “Taller Jeems will not be the man who will not,” he whispered, trying to make the words form a semblance of reasonable order, when the headstone toppled backward, shattering on the ground.
Startled, Hale scanned the basement and then moved quickly for the stairs, worrying that no one would believe he hadn’t pushed the stone over, trying to decide on a way to explain to – who? – that he wasn’t some vandal from New York, just a writer trying to tell a quirky story.
He was so distracted by his anxiety that he tripped over the tree root, thick as an elephant’s tusk, which lay at the threshold of the doorway. He tried to catch himself but fell, not on the greasy tile of the convenience store, but onto wet grass and spongy moss.
Leeds – the sad, low-slung brick buildings, the dusty cars at untended parking meters, the cheap diners and the crumbling old houses – was gone, and around him there was a forest, wild and tangled and shuddering with life.
Stumbling to his feet, he shook his head as if to reorder the sight before him to something comprehensible, but tripped again when glistening, ropey tendrils snaked from beneath a row of ferns to grasp at his ankles and wrists, probing his face, moving with vegetable indifference into his mouth, nose, ears, and eyes, pulling him down into the soft dampness.
He could see the trees above him fall, the brush cut away, the first crude houses spring up, and then sturdier dwellings, and then men in Colonial dress with solemn faces laying a huge stone over him, and then the roads grew broad and well-traveled, and the town disgorged its sons to die in war, and the rain fell on the corn, and the buildings were larger and the carriages disappeared as hard streets coursed through the town, and the river turned the wheels of a mill until the mill was no more and at last a vast antenna tower sprouted from where he lay and waved over the town as night came.
The last thing, before he was joined forever to the black soil of Leeds, was the sound of a radio crackling into life, its staticky tendrils testing the air, beckoning to the unwary.
Tom Breen is a former newspaper and wire service journalist who lives and works in Eastern Connecticut. His short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Broken Worlds and Creepy Campfire Quarterly Vol. 2, and his chapbook, Orford Parish Murder Houses: a Visitor’s Guide (to be reviewed by the Conqueror Weird soon), was published in February, 2016. The best places to find him are Colonial graveyards in New England, or on Twitter as @TJBreen.