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Denise Longrie

Words to Believe In

 

Humanities Department Chair Dr. Walter Klein walked to the podium in the Rupert Auditorium, smoothing down a shock of white hair over his left ear.

I smiled to myself. Wally’s hair always had a mind of its own.

Wally adjusted the microphone to his height and smiled at the audience. “Good evening, everyone. Come on. Quiet now.

Latecomers, there are seats in the back.” The buzz in the room diminished. Wally beamed. “We’ve got quite a turnout tonight. If you are here for the lecture on ‘The Power of Storytelling,’ you’re in the right place. If you want basket weaving, keep looking.”

A few chuckles answered him.

“Our speaker, Dr. Amelia LeJeune, comes to us from Yale University, where she teaches history, specializing in local history.”

He picked up an index card and read off the details of my academic background, my fieldwork, and my professional awards. I heard little of it, for I watched my old friend, Captain Ferris, stagger across the stage in his hobnail boots. Were the Captain still breathing, he would exhale rum in a sphere some six feet in diameter. I gritted my teeth.

The Captain smiled at me. “Hallo, me dear ‘eart. Yer a sight fer sore eyes.”

I smiled. At least no one could see or hear him. I’d known Captain Ferris since I was an undergrad at Tulane. I saw him on a footbridge holding a pot-roast-sized rock tied to a rope around his neck. I walked up to him, thinking I was talking him out of suicide, not realizing he was already dead. The Captain laughed himself silly but found my concern for his welfare endearing. He said he jumped in the river out of boredom every so often.

Captain Ferris waved an unsteady hand toward Wally. “’e’s the one we fisht outta th’ Kwin—th’ Kwinipi—th’ Kwinipi… the marsh, ain ‘e? Th’ one ‘oo hied away wi’ his britches aroun’ his knees?”

I gave him a slight shake of my head. That was an entirely different fiasco.

Amid applause, Wally stepped away from the podium to allow me to approach. I rose. He pivoted from me with a swiftness and precision that telegraphed: I have not forgiven you for San Francisco.

My charcoal gray business suit, sensible shoes, and chignon -  intended to radiate “serious scholar” - belied the subject matter I came to speak on. I surveyed the audience - eager students, skeptical professors, and bored ushers - separated and masked because of the modern plague.

An icy stab of fear ran through me. From somewhere in the sea of faces, a demon glared back at me, watching my every move.

It awaited one unguarded moment to strike. Whom had I angered? Was it after revenge? Had I trespassed some unknown boundary? I had no time to figure it out just then.

I removed my mask and let it hang off one ear. After adjusting the mic, I said, “Thank you for that lovely introduction, Dr. Klein.” I nodded toward him, beaming my best angelic smile. Wally glared at me with narrowed eyes over the top of his re-donned mask.

I would ignore him and start the lecture. “Good evening and thank you all for coming.”

“Hmm...,” said the Captain. “I know that bloke from sum’er.”

Yes, you do, but I thought, let’s not discuss San Francisco now.

“With Halloween coming and the veil between this world and the next growing ever thinner, many of us often have fun trying to scare one another with ghost stories. It’s easy to forget that people once used this time of year to remember those in the next world. Many still do.”

A ripple of whispers passed through the crowd. 

I smiled. “You are familiar with the ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ no doubt, living just up the river from the scene of the crime.”

YOU WILL BURN. The unspoken words appeared in my mind and rang throughout the auditorium.

I refused to engage the demon. Distraction might give it the opening it wanted.

The Captain spun around. “Damnation. One ‘a them critters. Come out ‘n’ fight like a man, ya yella-belly hobgoblin!”

“The power of storytelling is a two-way street,” I continued, “In fiction, we talk about not belief but suspension of disbelief. The skilled storyteller weaves a spell so enchanting that the listener buys into a world of faster-than-light travel, trolls, fairies, or ghosts—at least for a while. Without the listener’s buy-in, the story has no power.

“In Washington Irving’s—”

YOU WILL ALL BURN.

“Where are ya, ya miserable imp? Startin’ a fire in the jakes?” Captain Ferris jumped off the stage, but with his wits full of rum, he landed on his face.

“—original, no ghosts appear. In life—so the story goes—the Headless Horseman had been a Hessian trooper during the Revolutionary War. He now rides, looking for the head he lost to a Patriot cannonball in some nameless battle.” I paused to let the audience chuckle. They always laugh at this. Ghouls.

YOU WILL DIE IN AGONY, BEGGING FOR MERCY.

I thought: this is getting a bit much, spawn of Old Scratch or whoever you are.

Having regained his dignity, Captain Ferris stood upright and cried into the auditorium, “Come out ‘n’ face us, you bloody bugger!” He walked down the aisle as if he could find the demon among the audience.

I plowed ahead, “While it’s never explicitly stated, it’s clear that the blacksmith, Brom Bones, used the story and the superstitious fear of the schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, to rid himself of a romantic rival—and chase a pesky Yankee out of a Dutch settlement. We now associate the pumpkin with Halloween. At the time, it was considered a New England—not a Dutch—food. By throwing the pumpkin at Ichabod, Brom Bones was telling him, ‘Go home, Yankee!’

“For Brom’s prank to work, Ichabod has to buy into the tale. He’s spooked by the ghost stories at the party at the Van Tassel house, by having to ride home under the tree where the confederate of Benedict Arnold, Major André, was hanged, and by his reading of Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World.”

THEY WILL ALL BURN. YOU CAN DO NOTHING TO SAVE THEM.

This one was determined. I had to act. I must have pissed off someone somewhere, but I had no idea who or where. 

“Shut yer gob, ya misbegotten toad. Ya coon’t start no fire wi’ yer best fart an’ a tinder kit.”

I stifled a giggle. The Captain wasn’t helping.

Ferris slammed against the wall, missing an exit door by a hair. He succeeded on his second attempt, sending a shaft of light from the hall across several rows of seats. A couple of heads turned to see who had interrupted the lecture. One community-minded person got up and shut the door.

BURN! BURN! BURN!

Okay, sparky.

I sniffed. “I’m sorry. I hate to interrupt a good story, but I’ve been smelling smoke for several minutes. Has anyone else noticed it?”

I turned to Wally. He shook his head, wordlessly asking, “What are you up to now?”

“I know everyone here is politely masked. It’s well after four-twenty, so no one is smoking—” (More chuckles) “—but I distinctly smell smoke.” An usher picked up his radio and walked out of the main room. “Forgive the dramatics, but perhaps it’s better to be safe than sorry?”

If he could have, I’m sure Wally would have picked me up and hurled me off the stage. He unhooked his mask, opened his mouth—and a fire alarm bell rang out.

Silently, I thanked Captain Ferris. When did he learn how to use modern fire alarms?

Wally stepped up to the podium and pushed me aside. “Stay calm, everyone,” he ordered over the growing murmur. “Please, make your way to the nearest exit in an orderly fashion.”

I ran into the stage wings and stopped short. Facing me stood my worst nightmare. A beautiful man stepped toward me. I stepped back. Dark curls spiraled over his shoulders. A calm, reassuring smile played across his face. His flawless skin glowed with tones of honey and coffee—and his eyes. I refused to look into his eyes. I would get lost in those dark, luscious eyes. 

He wore a midnight cashmere pin-striped suit jacket that fit his torso as if made for him. Underneath it nestled a white silk shirt and matching tie, their sheen reflecting a light that wasn’t there. The silk undulated with every breath he took. Again, the demon grinned, revealing a set of immaculate whiter-than-white teeth.

I knew him then: Milan. I remembered what pissed him off. What self-respecting demon writes his true name on the wall of a public ladies’ room? Some of us can read Akkadian.

“Hello, Amelia.” The lilting melody of his voice was far from the hissing threats he’d issued earlier. I almost forgot the ear-splitting fire alarm and the people jostling toward the exits. “I’ve wanted to talk to you for so long.”

“Shite.” The word seemed to come from nowhere. Captain Jack’s hand rested on my shoulder, returning me to reality. “’ E’s not gonna show ya no good time, ‘Melia.”

His beautiful eyes…

“Come, my dear. You have nothing to say?” the demon asked. 

Perhaps I can muster a few words. I looked over the top of his head. “Sicut déficit fumus defíciant; sicut fluit cera a fácie ígnis, sic péreant peccatóres.” As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish.

His face darkened. “Such disrespect, Amelia.”

“Sicut déficit fumus defíciant; sicut fluit cera a fácie ígnis, sic péreant peccatóres.”

“I am the god of fire!” he screamed. “You will bow down before me or know poverty and loneliness for the rest of your life!”

Yeah, yeah, and I’m Ishkur, god of thunderstorms here to rain on your parade. “Sicut déficit fumus defíciant; sicut fluit cera a fácie ígnis, sic péreant peccatóres.”

He shrieked and ran at me, swinging his fists. I remained unmoving. His head dissolved, then his fists and arms, followed by the rest of his exquisite body. Only smoke wafting upward, a few wandering embers, and the scent of burned wool remained.

I picked up my things and fled into the night.

By my car stood Captain Ferris. “Where is ‘e, th’ cowar’?”

I hugged him. “My old friend. You’re drunk. Thanks for pulling the alarm.”

“Pullin’ th’ what?”

I regarded him for a moment. “Not you? Maybe there is a fire?”

We heard then the wail of a distant fire engine siren.

“I waited too long,” I said.

“Nah. None a’ th’ demon’s doing. Cookin’ fire.” He pointed to a black plume rising from what appeared to be a cafeteria building adjacent to the auditorium.

“Oh, no,” I muttered. Groups of students gathered to watch the fire and the arrival of a firetruck. “Let’s wait here and see what happens. I’d like to finish my speech.”

“Now I ‘member that bloke w’ th’ white hair. San Fran’sco.”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“A right arse wi’ ears, that one.”

I wasn’t going to argue with his assessment.

“An’ th’ critter?”

“’E hied away wi’ his britches aroun’ his knees,” I said in my best imitation of the Captain. It earned me a confused look.

“When you’re sober tomorrow—I hope you’re sober tomorrow—that demon will still be as dumb as a sack of hammers and believe in the power of words it doesn’t understand.”

He nodded. “Lucky fer us.”


 

Denise Longrie’s work has appeared in Suddenly, and Without Warning, Liquid Imagination, Short-Story Me, Wisconsin Review, and Drunken Pen Writing. She has self-published a nonfiction guide to pre-1900 speculative fiction. Currently, she is working by the flickering light of a Jacob’s ladder on a sequel treating twentieth-century pulp science fiction. Bienvenue à la Danse, Denise.

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