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 Maze of Darkness

November 28, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

It’s your boy Theseus here, giving you a punctuated play-by-play of Budapest because things are too densely crowded and chaotic to do this chronologically. Today’s bit starts both in the Castle District and in media res.

I went up to the Castle Bazaar, I was under the impression that a “Bazaar” is a sweet flea market, like every bazaar in Turkey was. I’m good on palaces for a minute, but I did need some blank t-shirts so my screenprint souvenir dealies don’t immediately out me as a tourist. I know five words in Hungarian now and that’s more than enough to fake my way through two conversational exchanges. If they see me standing there in a cheap, ill-fitting Athens shirt, they greet me in English. Contemptuously.

As it happens, sometimes a bazaar just means a large, boring courtyard. This was one of those times. Disappointed and chilly, I decided to forage up lunch somewhere in the castle district, and that’s where I discovered the Labirintus.

I’m a sucker for mazes. I’ll be it has something to do with my total lack of a sense of direction, some sort of compensatory reaction formation mechanism, like closet-gay homophobes, or Catholic schoolgirls. Plus, it was a real, live dungeon, underground, where people were imprisoned and tortured.

It’s like they left me no choice.

Budapest is built on an elaborate system of caves. Ten million years ago, most of central Europe was submerged under an enormous body of water called the Pannonian Sea.

pannonian sea

Four million years ago, it had shrunk to Lake Pannon, which still covered the majority of Hungary. As the flora and fauna lived and died in the water and the ecosystem shrank down, the salts and minerals became concentrated.

The capitol of Hungary is also famous for its thermal springs, which were long thought to possess supernatural healing powers because of their own weird mineral concentration. When the Pannonian water soaked through the soil and met with the miracle-water of the geothermal springs, it turned slightly caustic and, over millions of years, carved out a tremendous complex of caves. Tectonic shift drained Lake Pannon and the groundwater below it, and Budapest, being on the fault line demarcated by the Danube, was left with a sprawling natural cave system thought to be more than 62 miles (100km) long.

Terrible place to build a city what with all the sinkholes, but what are you gonna do.

Throughout its entire history, Budapest used the caves for strategic superiority. Buda proper was built around 1250 when King Béla IV of Hungary got tired of being sacked by Mongol raiders, so he moved his kingdom 200 meters away, to the top of a hill, and built a wall around it. Walls, being the only Mongolian weakness, effectively deterred them, and medieval Buda thrived.

citywok

From that point forward, whenever Buda was threatened by siege, the soldiers (and in the case of Fisherman’s Bastion, also the fishermen) would man the walls and the rest of the population would shuffle into the caves like mole people. The strategy worked so well that Budapest used it to survive the Soviet bombings of World War II.

The Labyrinth was divvied up into four sections. The first was a wax museum based on an opera that was, in turn, based on some drama that took place in Buda Castle. The second was the eponymous Maze of Darkness. The third was the cell where King Mathias kept Vlad the Impaler imprisoned for 14 years as punishment for eloping with his adolescent daughter. The fourth was, inexplicably, a bunch of posters describing other caves in the world.

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I did the Maze of Darkness first. You don’t really appreciate how dark it can get. All the darkness we experience in civilized society is disrupted by street lamps, refracted glare, cell phones, moon and starlight. Even when we close our eyes we have something that resembles darkness, but it’s not real, true, black-as-pitch darkness.

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The Maze was deep enough under ground that there was nothing. They left a rope running along a wall to guide you through, but that was it. Without it, it’s so dark you’re not sure if your eyes are open.

I’m a big dude. I don’t rattle. But when you’re in that kind of dark, it makes you realize that if there’s anything down there that can see even a little bit better than you, it’s over. You don’t have a chance. A chihuahua with light-amp goggles could have ended my life.

Obviously, it was too dark in the Maze of Darkness to see the realized nightmare at the end, so I took a picture with flash before strategically retreating into the Straightaway of Electric Light.

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why do it

After I stopped crying, I looped around into the fog where they kept Dracula.

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pretty sure this is a sliding floor puzzle that unlocks a secret treasure room

In getting to Dracula, I scared the shit out of everyone by accident. Nobody else seemed to want to wander around a foggy, haunted dungeon alone, for some reason, so when I’d pass couples or clusters of girls in the corridors, there was nothing I could do to warn them. I’d lumber out of the mist and they would freeze or, in some cases, actually scream, and I’d just smile indulgently and keep on goin’. Not a lot to be said at that point.

I checked out the cave exhibit but it was really sad. With Dracula at large and those horrible blue children still lurking around somewhere, I bade the labyrinth farewell, got lost three times, then found my way to the exit where I overheard a British couple discussing reading of signs.

“There, see?” the dude said. “No photography allowed. Nearly missed that one, that’s important.”

“Oops.”

So don’t tell nobody.

I emerged into the frozen Budapesti day and went to find food that would, hopefully, not be sausage.

(It was sausage.)

Love,

The Bastard