North Clarendon, Vermont: Whispers in the Dark

April 21, 2021. North Clarendon, Vermont.
Soundtrack: Bad Religion – My Head Is Full of Ghosts

We turned the widening gyre back to the airbnb farmstead. Beefer narrowly evaded Cody’s lascivious onslaught. Cody would not run. It was a plodding, relentless pursuit predation, like if Michael Meyers’s end goal were a poorly understood iteration of humping.

Which would technically describe Austin Powers, but that’s incidental, and the wrong vibe.

In Vermont, steak is dirt cheap. We stocked up on $3/lb porterhouses and stashed them in the fridge for the lean times ahead. We had rented the upper floor of the farmhouse, and had the equivalent square footage of my row home in Philly all to ourselves. It was a slipshod entanglement of rooms and hallways that didn’t lead anywhere. Single steps changed the floor’s height at random, giving the whole complex the sensibility of a McDonald’s Playplace in dark oak.

“I love it!” said the Witch.

This didn’t surprise me. The shelves were full of obscure bronze implements, faded stash boxes, and glazed ceramic mugs, inexpertly crafted and unlikely to function as drinking vessels with any degree of reliability. The Witch wandered around, vaping herbs and cooing at the scavenged Goodwill decor.

There was a daybed off the kitchen, and judging by the damage it did to my coccyx when I sat, it was made of concrete. Beefton didn’t mind. He hopped up and lost consciousness, likely from the blunt force trauma of settling his cannonball head on the “mattress”.

The walls were covered in light switches. Some worked lights in adjacent rooms, which you couldn’t see. Some didn’t seem to do anything. When bedtime rolled around, getting them all shut off was like solving a logic puzzle, and I couldn’t shake the thought that one of them turned on the host’s microwave and catalyzed the immolation of the whole desolate, wooded state.

It was around 3 AM when I woke up and stumbled down the hallway toward the bathroom. I didn’t try to turn on the lights. Why bother? I didn’t want to cause another Fukushima. Up I tottered, stripped to the waist, laboring through the dark like Theseus in the labyrinth.

Then came the whispering.

Probably a ritual. A Witch ritual. A witchual, I decided. Wasn’t 3 AM Shakespeare’s witching hour? When churchyards yawn and Hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world? Did Shakespeare even have 3 AM? How old were clocks?

This was not unusual for me. My stream of consciousness is more a chain of whitewater rapids into a Niagaran fall, and in the daylight hours, I make an effort to reconstruct and articulate whatever splinters survive the drop. At night, no such luck. Monkeys and typewriters, the full span of the synapse.

I turned one of the endless House of Leaves corners and the whispers stopped. Beefton sat bolt upright, his focus concentrated to a near physical force, staring at a wooden chair.

“What the dog doin?” I murmured.

He didn’t look at me.

I drew closer, hesitant, the boards no longer creaking under my feet, the silence whole and encompassing. Darkness swallowed us, and the single rail of moonlight cast a faint circle of illumination around me, my attorney, and the antique chair.

“Beefyboi?”

He jolted upright, whirling, eyes huge and wild.

“Whoa, it’s all right! Shhh. It’s night. You okay?”

His tail wagged once, twice, tentatively. He looked back at the chair. Beefton is an expressive creature, a full suite of emotion made available from his labrador and pitbull heritages, and I could tell a side eye when I saw one.

I filled my jug at the kitchen sink. In the rushing static of the water, I could hear the whispers again, almost voices, almost comprehensible, some impetus bleeding through the dissonance.

I turned back toward the hall. Beefy was sitting again, staring again, ramrod straight and still as a gargoyle.

“The hell are you looking at?” I asked. I squatted down next to him to follow his line of sight.

The old Victorian chair had a demon’s mask carved into the backrest, a leering, manic snarl that seemed to jump and dance in the shadows cast by the weak white light of the moon. The pupils rolled up toward the top of the eyes like the face was in some ecstatic state, a debaucherous midpoint between orgasm and death, lips pulled back to expose a toothed beak, flanked by curling ram’s horns.

Staring into the carving, I heard the whisper again, bright and pure as a bell.

“Kill them,” it said. Not from the chair, but from inside my own head. “Kill them all.”

I looked to Beefton, but he couldn’t see me. His eyes had rolled back to show red blood vessels and white sclera, mirroring the face in the wood.

“No,” I said. “The Witch is gonna do half the drive home. And I paid $300 for this dog.”

The chair didn’t answer. I decided it could spend the rest of the night on the balcony, if it wanted to be so chatty. I opened the door to put it out and a wolf howled in the chill night air.

“I get it,” I said. I tipped over the chair for good measure.

Beefton’s trance was broken and when I came back inside, he wanted to wrassle. I told him there was no wrassling at 3 AM and he followed me back into the bedroom, where he climbed his 85 lb bulk on top of the Witch and immediately fell asleep. She made a sound like being punched in the gut, but didn’t stir.

I spent the night in swirling, torrential dreams of black mazes, faint whispers, and switches that didn’t do anything.

When I woke the next morning, the chair was back in the kitchen, next to the concrete bed. Of course it was. The face was still in the daylight, but the leer remained, and the suggestion of knowledge and premeditation behind it.

I crouched next to the haunted chair, gave it my own manic leer.

“Here’s to life,” I whispered.

Then I grilled up a couple of truly formidible breakfast steaks.

Love,

B.

Budapest: The Descent

December 1, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

I had to face facts. I wasn’t realistically going to go be healed in the mineral baths. Public bathing sounded time-consuming and expensive, and all the local residents I’d talked to about it confirmed that it’s very much a tourist thing. I already had my FlixBus booked. The clock was running. I had to figure out how to kill another 24 hours in Budapest.

The answer came from a pamphlet I was forced to look at while the girls running my hostel attempted five minutes of math in order to give me my change.

“Sick of partying and sightseeing?”

“Yeah,” I said out loud.

“Want something more EXCITING?”

“Yeah, dude.”

They looked up from their calculations, but only momentarily. I can’t imagine they’re paid enough to deal with whatever I was doing.

“Try some fuckin’ uhhhh adventure caving.”

“You know, I just might.”

“Are you okay?” one of the girls asked.

I pocketed the pamphlet and collected my change, then went back to my little canvas bed-cubicle and did some Serious Internet Research. Apparently, there were two kind of tours: Weenie Hut Jr. Old People Cavewalk, and Mountain Dew Code Red EXTREME CAVER Spelunk. The latter was obviously twice as expensive, but since money isn’t real in Budapest is barely broke $10.

Unfortunately, the cave was 3 miles from town. The website assured me that a bus runs up to it, and when I disembarked to find this bus, I discovered the bus stop was also 2.5 miles away.

Welp.

I tied on my highly fashionable scarf (which I haven’t lost yet) and trekked up the mountain. It was an hour and a half of walking, nothing too terrible even after I’d gotten enough altitude that the sidewalk was a sheet of ice.

When I arrived, the guy at the desk asked if I was here for the Old People walk.

“No, I’m trying to do the one that warns you about being physically fit.”

“Do you have a reservation?”

On the website there was no phone number or e-mail, but there was an Angelfire-style late 90’s guestbook that said “Contact us!” about six page-scrolls under the words “Make a reservation or pay at the desk!”

Exclamation points are, as we know, extreme.

“I was just gonna pay at the desk.”

“You need a reservation,” he said. “Another company does the caving tours. If you want to contact them now, they usually get back very quickly, and we have hot chocolate.”

I passed on the hot chocolate and told their guestbook, “Hey, I’d like to make a reservation for today. When will you be here?”

Fifteen minutes later, I got an e-mail saying, “The High Voltage Maximum Overdrive Cannonball Spelunking Melee is at 3:30, but you need to make a reservation.”

I paused to rub my temples, then sent them a reply saying, “Yes, I’d like to make a reservation. For today. How do I do that?”

Another fifteen minutes and, “Here is your confirmation code for your reservation today!”

Well, that gave me three hours to kill on top of a mountain. I walked a mile in the wrong direction, ate an entire pizza, then walked back and dicked around on my phone until everyone arrived.

My group was 10 other people, led by two slight, enthusiastic Hungarian men in their late thirties. They gave us jumpsuits and hats. It was the best I’ve ever looked.

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felt like a ghostbuster

The reason I went caving is because I didn’t remember if I was claustrophobic. I know I get edgy if I’m packed into a room with a big crowd, barring the occasions that include mosh pits, but that probably has more to do with deep-seated misanthropy than phobic reaction to forfeiture of personal space. I can vividly remember a nightmare I had when I was young, where there was a subterranean river that ran under a mountain and I dove in and, breath held, fought my way up the current in the dark. The river was so narrow I could feel it brushing against my shoulders, and I reached out and grabbed the sides, used them to push myself along.

Now seemed like a good time to see if I still had that fear. Besides, if there’s a collapse and I die, it’ll happen really quick. I probably won’t even notice I’m dead. I’ve accomplished most of the things I’ve set out to do. Getting crushed into paste would mean I don’t have to draft a new bucket list.

The tour was pretty cool, in all honesty. You had to duck and crawl and shimmy around things a lot, a lot of climbing, hoisting, and maneuvering. It was fun, and made me feel like I’m in better shape than I could possibly be, considering how much of the past month I spent consuming poison and not exercising.

“Sporty” is the preferred European nomenclature. In America, we call it athletic, but in Europe they ask if you’re “sporty” before commenting about how you look like you go to the gym. You’re goddamn right. I’ll squat everyone you’ve ever loved.

As the lumberingest behemoth in the group, if there was a spot that was excessively tight, the tour guides would say, “Bastard, you’ll probably fit. And if not, we have knives.”

“I’ve been meaning to lose weight on this trip anyway,” I said.

There was only one truly close call.

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You’ve got no scale from that picture, but rest assured, what you’re looking at couldn’t be more than a foot high. The only way for a dude with my skeleton to wedge himself in was what they called “Supermanning”. You put one arm straight up in front of you, turn your head toward the arm you have down, and writhe on belly, pushing along with the tips of your toes and whatever your hands can grab.

I made it through most of the 50-feet of clay snake tunnel without incident or bitching, but when I popped out of the other side like a gopher, I got stuck at the thickest point in my chest. Not a little stuck, either. I couldn’t go forward or backward, not that backward was really an option anyway.

You know that phrase, “stuck between a rock and a hard place”? That was my ribcage. I could feel limestone jutting between the slats in my ribs.

“Welp,” I said, “I guess I’ll stay here.”

“You stuck?”

“Real stuck. Come back in a couple days, I’ll slim down.”

“Move toward the right,” they suggested.

The right was slightly back up the tunnel, and it took a herculean effort to unjam my torso, but I managed to push myself back into an area that gave me an extra inch of clearance. That was all I needed. I wormed out and dusted off.

“Whew!” I said. “All right. Not claustrophobic anymore, as it turns out.”

That was the narrowest point on the tour, which is good, because I wouldn’t be typing this now if there were narrower. The guides showed us fossils, gypsum crystals, and formations with wacky names like “The Sandwich”, “The Theater,” and “The Birth Canal.” The Sandwich was where I got stuck. The birth canal was roomier than you’d expect.

I mimicked the guides as best I could as we flung ourselves around the cave like characters from Donkey Kong Country. It was basically the fun parts of hiking — the jumping, climbing, balancing — but underground.

When we surfaced I walked back to civilization and realized the to-and-from definitely burnt off the entire pizza. I needed to fuel up. I was getting pretty sick of meat by this point, so I went to the restaurant by my hostel and ordered the stuffed cabbage.

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Now, the casual observer may look at this and say, “Bastard, where is the cabbage?”

An understandable question. It was wedged between the kielbasa and what I think was a deep fried pork vertebra, with an entire pork chop pulled over the top like a blanket.

I didn’t die in the cave. I guess that’s cause for celebration. I ate, drank, be’d merry, then called it an early night so I could catch this bus.

Dresden is the next stop. Don’t worry, I’m prepared.

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This cartoon bird says I can speak German.

Love,

The Bastard