Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, the day when the souls of those who had died that year progress to the underworld. It was said to be a night when the veil between this existence and the next is the thinnest- when ghosts, demons, and things that go bump in the night roam the earth freely and people placate them with offerings of food. In modern times offerings are more likely to be M&Ms and Jelly Beans, but it remains a day when we acknowledge our fears and celebrate forces we do not fully understand. These 10 stories tell of the sort of sinister goings on we've come to expect from the Eve of All Hallows. The October Athenaeum invites you to curl up in your favorite chair, turn the lights down a bit, and read your way into a Halloween frame of mind...
Kerfol by Edith Wharton A prospective buyer goes to look round a French chateau (complete with chapel and tombs)
but finds the place deserted - apart from a strange pack of dogs.
I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did.
Are they dead that yet speak louder than we can speak, and a more universal language? Are they dead that yet act? Are they dead that yet move upon society and inspire the people with nobler motives and more heroic patriotism?
~Henry Ward Beecher
Hoping all TA/SST readers, commenters, & posters can spend a relaxed, enjoyable weekend in the company of family & friends.
I have added the following essay to my sister's post for Memorial day. I wrote this piece at the beginning of the Iraq War. pl
"Hemingway’s writing has three outstanding qualities – a sense of suggestiveness, of moving forward on different levels, and the ability to present a story in a way that is highly emotional and intensely immediate -- a story that depends on using telling, visual details. These virtues are ones that Pat shares in his stories." Richard Sale
It had been raining in the valley of the Sacramento. The North Fork had overflowed its banks and Rattlesnake Creek was impassable. The few boulders that had marked the summer ford at Simpson's Crossing were obliterated by a vast sheet of water stretching to the foothills. The up stage was stopped at Grangers; the last mail had been abandoned in the tules, the rider swimming for his life. "An area," remarked the "Sierra Avalanche," with pensive local pride, "as large as the State of Massachusetts is now under water."
Nor was the weather any better in the foothills. The mud lay deep on the mountain road; wagons that neither physical force nor moral objurgation could move from the evil ways into which they had fallen, encumbered the track, and the way to Simpson's Bar was indicated by broken-down teams and hard swearing. And farther on, cut off and inaccessible, rained upon and bedraggled, smitten by high winds and threatened by high water, Simpson's Bar, on the eve of Christmas day, 1862, clung like a swallow's nest to the rocky entablature and splintered capitals of Table Mountain, and shook in the blast.
As night shut down on the settlement, a few lights gleamed through the mist from the windows of cabins on either side of the highway now crossed and gullied by lawless streams and swept by marauding winds. Happily most of the population were gathered at Thompson's store, clustered around a red-hot stove, at which they silently spat in some accepted sense of social communion that perhaps rendered conversation unnecessary. Indeed, most methods of diversion had long since been exhausted on Simpson's Bar; high water had suspended the regular occupations on gulch and on river, and a consequent lack of money and whiskey had taken the zest from most illegitimate recreation. Even Mr. Hamlin was fain to leave the Bar with fifty dollars in his pocket -- the only amount actually realized of the large sums won by him in the successful exercise of his arduous profession. "Ef I was asked," he remarked somewhat later, --"ef I was asked to pint out a purty little village where a retired sport as didn't care for money could exercise hisself, frequent and lively, I'd say Simpson's Bar; but for a young man with a large family depending on his exertions, it don't pay." As Mr. Hamlin's family consisted mainly of female adults, this remark is quoted rather to show the breadth of his humor than the exact extent of his responsibilities.
Howbeit, the unconscious objects of this satire sat that evening in the listless apathy begotten of idleness and lack of excitement. Even the sudden splashing of hoofs before the door did not arouse them. Dick Bullen alone paused in the act of scraping out his pipe, and lifted his head, but no other one of the group indicated any interest in, or recognition of, the man who entered.
It was a figure familiar enough to the company, and known in Simpson's Bar as "The Old Man." A man of perhaps fifty years; grizzled and scant of hair, but still fresh and youthful of complexion. A face full of ready, but not very powerful sympathy, with a chameleon-like aptitude for taking on the shade and color of contiguous moods and feelings. He had evidently just left some hilarious companions, and did not at first notice the gravity of the group, but clapped the shoulder of the nearest man jocularly, and threw himself into a vacant chair.
"Jest heard the best thing out, boys! Ye know Smiley, over yar -- Jim Smiley -- funniest man in the Bar? Well, Jim was jest telling the richest yarn about --"
"Smiley's a ---- fool," interrupted a gloomy voice.
"A particular ---- skunk," added another in sepulchral accents.
A silence followed these positive statements. The Old Man glanced quickly around the group. Then his face slowly changed. "That's so," he said reflectively, after a pause, "certingly a sort of a skunk and suthin of a fool. In course." He was silent for a moment as in painful contemplation of the unsavoriness and folly of the unpopular Smiley. "Dismal weather, ain't it?" he added, now fully embarked on the current of prevailing sentiment. "Mighty rough papers on the boys, and no show for money this season. And tomorrow's Christmas."
"There was once a pretty, delicate girl who was loved by two boys, but she was aware of only one of them. The one she liked was handsome, popular and had lots of friends. He was good at sports and all the girls liked him, and everyone wanted to be his friend. His name was John." Richard Sale
"She grabbed the dragon and slammed it down in front of Mr. Musty. She had remembered this part clearly, where the dragon leaned its head in close to the massive buffalo after it had used its great wings to launch itself over them. In her dreams Mr. Musty was large enough that she could lay across his shoulders and still not worry about falling off, while his head was wider than her mom’s SUV. However the dragon’s head was even larger. As he leaned in, the smell of the sea overwhelmed her, and the vertical slashes on his muzzle flexed as he snorted before his lips spread and he showed teeth the size of swords." Tyler
Our friend Tyler offers us this story for a Halloween season. pl
In daytime, the place was just a normal house, down at the heels, surrounded by a gravel parking lot where a lawn may once have existed. At night, it was the infamous “Bloody Bucket.”
The name was derived from a makeshift sign that hung, a bit cockeyed, from the rusted rain gutter over the sagging front porch. Proprietress Delilah Grimm, known almost universally as “Lil,” had been thwarted in her original plan. She had wanted to call the place “Delilah’s Bucket o’ Blood Tavern and Grille.”
When it was time for the sign to be painted, however, she discovered that one of her half-witted sons—as she never failed to describe them—had decided that the bocce balls would be far easier to see in the evening games if they were painted red. In their crafty but stupid way, the two teenagers found the paint.
The Italian miners, who were the only users of said bocce balls, claimed the two idiots had left runs of paint on the balls that made them take screwy paths like Dizzy Dean’s junk pitches. They refused to use them.
Pat Lang’s three-volume novel is a vast work that has real genius. It speaks with what Yeats called, “the living voice.” What makes it remarkable is the astonishing breadth of the canvas on which he paints, the dazzling sweep of the characters and scenes and the variety topics. The force of his narrative, the delicate mental reactions and subtle emotional calculations of the characters, along with Lang’s thorough mastery of the Civil War, make the book an amazing and praiseworthy performance.
There is a chiseled quality, a hardness and clarity in the way Lang sees things. In the book, you find that there are sexual tensions, personal rivalries, and strategic dilemmas in abundance. Lang’s world is a complicated and dangerous world. There are two supreme loyalties for a man – one is loyalty to his country, and the other is loyalty to family. Since the family loyalty is more personal, it is also the stronger.
Claude Devereux, a Confederate agent, is also man of tortured self-doubt (at one point he observes that ‘the people who doubted him most, are the people he cherished most”) and he is also a man ambitious of achievement, liking to pit his resources against superior odds, liking to be in places where he is liable to be killed. His mission forces him to perform exploits to validate his sense of his own worth. He is condemned to a perilous life of constant re-assessments, constant vigilance and wariness, always scanning the ground around him to avoid his own destruction. Claude is one of those who has to know when to be silent, to know just how much to say, to be truthful and yet to mislead, how to drop casual observations as a kind of test of a person’s acuteness, how to sense what others mean or know even if they don’t say it. He has to be able to know that someone is planning a secret meeting even though he says the exact opposite; he has to know that a person who appears to have real influence has in fact lost it; he has to know that another is a wire-puller, and yet a person from whom you can have anything you want if you simply present the right face and hit the right note.
In the end, Claude is destroyed by the very events he has set in motion, destroyed by his own inner demons. In the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot used the line, “In the beginning, is my end.” That is Lang’s plot in a nut shell.
Reading Pat Lang’s novel has also changed the way I viewed the Civil War. It is a novel about patriotism, discipline and comradeship, but it is also about honor and the values of civilization. There is too much vindictive animosity about popular depictions of the South in the Civil War. In too many books, the South is pictured as a static, agricultural land directed by men of a refined culture that was marred by the ownership of slaves. Men of the North were men of the cities. By necessity, the liberty of the individual in the North was submerged into the preponderant weight of the mass. The mixed nature of the population demanded amalgamation. That was the source of the North’s strength. It was a gross strength, the strength of massed and limitless numbers.
By contrast, the South was an old civilization, one of luxury and refinement. In Lang’s book, you will discover that the gentlemen of the South were men of social graces and tradition. To the Greeks, nobility was the prime mover in forming the nation’s culture and the Confederate men are very Greek in their ideals. In the South, culture was shown in the whole man -- in his external appearance, conduct, and in his inner nature. The Southern cavaliers lived by ancient commandments—“Honor the gods, Honor your father and mother, Respect the stranger.”
High civilization in history springs from the differentiation of social classes. The upbringing of those classes aims at producing a man the way he ought to be. It unites nobility of action with nobility of mind. In the South, a man measures his own nobility by the regard he enjoys in other’s eyes. Men do what they do in order to ensure their own worth. Heroes treat each other with constant respect and their whole social system depends on such respect.
The culture of the Confederacy prized physical prowess and spiritual harmony as the highest goods attainable by a successful life. A sense of honor prevented men from committing any gross action, and they were driven by an enormous drive to obtain honor by performing some great deed. Men did what they did to ensure their own worth. The man’s job was to forget himself in the service of the honorable duties demanded by his country in the while avoiding doing anything base. This was the foundation of the whole system of southern ethics. Honor was universally valid. You could not forget your country. Its values were universal and timeless and your service to them never ended.
Behind the cavaliers of the South stood the Southern women. Respect for honor lurked at the point of every sword. The men were chivalrous and enacted a gallantry that wasn’t false or artificial. Women in the South were worshipped as fit companions for the cavaliers. All this emerges as you read Lang’s narrative.
People like to cite Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a kind of mechanical homage to what they haven’t really read. I recently began W&P for the ninth time, and I can say, without flattery, that Lang’s work echoes in many ways Tolstoy’s masterpiece.
I knew I was under surveillance three months ago when I decided to go off the grid. If only I had known then what I know now I would have headed for Central Kansas, or whatever place is the farthest from saltwater.
They’re out there waiting. Whatever possessed me to decide to hide on the Baja Peninsula? When it started to get dark and I noticed a lot of the locals cutting worried glances at the beach. Now I understand.
It all started about midnight on the second of May when a van full of wets went off the Route 90 Bridge east of Alpine.
They must have been going like a bat out of hell, because when we walked the bridge a few minutes after we got the call there wasn’t so much as a scrape on the hefty concrete and steel rails. Somehow they vaulted right over without touching anything. The wreckage was still on fire in the bottom of the ravine. The crumpled metal was so hot we couldn’t get near it. It burned strangely, I remember; not much smoke, but we squinted in a fierce whitish light that made me wonder if they had been carrying something unusual as cargo.
We climbed down through the Manzanita and scrub that choked the steep banks of what used to be a river some millions of years ago. That old river was long gone; and on that late spring evening in South Texas it was already sweltering when we reached the ravine floor.
A lot of things have changed in the Border Patrol since nine-eleven including our name, but one thing has stayed the same. We ain’t the Red Cross. We climbed down there, not to rescue anybody, but to make sure no living wetbacks had crept away into the darkness.
Officer Juan Beltrán, our half Apache-half Yaqui tracker, immediately began to quarter across the featureless stone. He turned his khaki baseball cap around backwards, and I could tell he was about to get serious about the business of chasing men.
We headed for a little kink in the ravine almost a mile from the bridge; I called my other two troopers to flank to the south.
“You got it, Goldie.” Tom Gephardt and Mickey Wilson were born Texans and hard as nails. Good men who would probably have been Texas Rangers, or maybe outlaws, in another time.
“You gonna be able to track ‘em, Juanito?” I said.
“There’s always somethin’ they don’t notice.” He grunted with about as much enthusiasm as he ever showed for anything. Juan was your basic stoic Native American, or whatever the politically correct term is these days.
No more than a couple of minutes passed before he called out of the darkness on the edge of the beam from my Maglite.
“There’s some kind of stain, something blue. It’s still damp, c’mon over this way.”
“What is it?” I expected blood, but if I had understood what was happening we would have all climbed out of that ravine right then.
“I don’t know. The dust is all riled up like somebody was dragging a giant broom, and there’s this wet, blue stuff.”
“Giant broom?” I guess he might have heard skepticism in my voice. “Trying to cover their tracks out here? Don’t make sense, vato.”
“I mean like ten, twenty feet across, Goldie. Giant, I ain’t kiddin.’”
“Don’t get too far out front,” I said, “there might be a bunch a them. They could be waiting out there with rocks.”
“Wetback’s ain’t dangerous, Ese, you know better’n that. Probably just scared and hurt.” But for an accident of birth, Juan Beltrán could have been one of those undocumented Mexicans, and we both knew it.
“Slow down.” I yelled back for Tom and Mickey to close up with us, because something was giving me a bad case of the creeps.
“There’s more and more of it.” Juan never got excited, just more and more intense.
“Well, what is it, a bag of ink, or paint, or what?”
“Nope, it’s got a smell. I don’t know, kind of salty. Almost like blood, but different.”
“Don’t get so far ahead; I’m having a hard time covering you.”
I was carrying two pounds of Beretta nine-millimeter on my hip, and one-handing a stubby little M-4 carbine. Our other two team members were packing serious heat too. Only Beltrán, with his crafty insistence that gun oil messed up his sensitive tracker’s nose, was unarmed.
We should have been able to hold our own against a regimental combat team, but it sure didn’t turn out that way.
Beltrán didn’t hesitate. He disappeared around the corner into the deadfall and there was a sudden bright glow from the other side and a commotion. He reappeared almost instantaneously, low to the ground. Then I realized it was only his hat. A split second later I knew his head was still in it.
“What the hell! Shoot! Shoot!”
All in one motion I dropped my Maglite and flicked the M-4 to full auto. I stepped around to line up with the notch motioning the other two forward. We stood line abreast, all firing. The brass rained down around our feet. Something whipped out of the darkness past my head. I felt the breeze as it flashed by. Was it a whip? A rope?
The flames from the three automatic weapons and the light from the still-rolling Maglite combined to show us something I still can’t forget. I swear, what I saw looked like a huge plastic bag full of water with a mass of something, maybe like guts, twisting around inside it. It towered over the deadfall, nine or ten feet tall. All at once there was a subtle “pop” and the essence of the sea rolled over us with choking intensity.
I finally managed to get my finger off the trigger and stopped the others. We got three flashlights pointed in the right direction to find Beltrán’s body half buried in some indescribably slimy stuff that was starting to disintegrate. It looked like bubble wrap somehow disappearing, cell after cell, as we watched. I had a flash impression of a giant, baleful eye. It was looking right at us. We backed out of sight of the thing.
Tom’s voice was strangled, “What the hell was that?”
“What’re we gonna do, Boss?” Mickey was usually a bit resistant to my authority, but suddenly he wanted someone to tell him what to do.
“Let’s get back to the bridge until it gets light. There might be more of them.” I said with my voice shaking.
“More of what?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s a helluva good reason to get out of here.” Even the unflappable Tom Gephardt was flapped.
We took turns walking backwards and staring into the darkness. It seemed to take a week to make it back to the bridge, but it wasn’t really long at all.
Nonetheless it was long enough for us to get lots of company. At the top of the slope was an unwelcome surprise.
The guy was a poster-perfect example of the modern urban super-hero. He was dressed head-to-toe in black combat overalls, but on him they looked like a custom-made Tuxedo. “Seth Marshall, Homeland Security.” He held out a small leather case with a gold badge.
“Captain John Orr. We’re from the US Customs and Border Protection. We’re part of Homeland Security too.” I extended my hand, but he ignored me.
“I’m from Headquarters.” He vaguely gestured over his shoulder toward a Blackhawk helicopter idling on the highway.
I was puzzled. “How’d did you get here so quick? The wreck only happened a couple hours ago.”
“We were tracking the thing from NORAD during the final approach. One of the deep space surveillance systems picked it up almost a week ago. We launched as soon as they calculated the impact point.”
“NORAD? What NORAD? No, a van full of wetbacks went over the bridge here, but we followed one of ‘em, and my God, I don’t know what we saw. It got one of my men up the ravine. Like something flew out and cut his head right off. It almost got us too.” I was jabbering and trying to keep my words separated, but failing.
“Calm down now. It wasn’t a van. It came from deep space.”
“The hell you say. A spaceship?” I guess my mouth was hanging open.
“This never happened as far as you’re concerned. We don’t need any loose cannons.”
“It got one of my men.”
“No, you chased some Mexicans in the darkness. In the confusion you guys panicked and accidentally shot your own man. It’s happened plenty of times before.”
“Well, it didn’t happen here.” I was feeling pretty adamant.
“What happened here is what I say happened.” Seth rejoined smoothly. “You all are going to shut up about this. There will be a shooting evaluation board and you’ll all be acquitted—if you keep it zipped.”
They herded us into the helicopter like a bunch of chickens. They isolated us. Everyone had noise suppressing headsets, and no one talked. It was hours before we landed on some Air Force base. We heard a pair of fighters roar off into the growing pinkness of the dawn.
Another Blackhawk landed out front. Figures dressed in big moon suits came climbing out. Two of them were carrying the diminished body of what had to be Juan Beltrán shrouded in a black body bag. Four more individuals carrying two large boxes that looked like high-tech ice chests followed them.
“What’s that?” I pointed toward the people with the chests.
“It’s what was left of that thing. They say they got almost a hundred and fifty pounds of it sealed up in each of those chests. We’ve got a full team standing by; we’ll figure out what it is.” Seth Marshall was doing his best to calm us, but it wasn’t working.
“It will be a while for the test results,” Seth Marshall confided. It was four long days.
“Clean bill of health, boys. We didn’t bring anything back from out there.”
“What about those chests of slime? What about those?” Mickey Wilson, a man of few words, was finally roused.
Seth Marshall was ready, “Well, as a matter of fact we have a guy coming down this afternoon to tell us all about that. There’s no reason you can’t hear the final results of the analysis. You paid for it, after all.”
Our enlightenment arrived that afternoon right on schedule. Wyatt Elkins, PhD, was a cherubic little fellow in his mid sixties. He had the kind of pink, translucent skin that comes from a life in the laboratory.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to get this chance.” Dr. Elkins’ smile was as angelic as his appearance.
“Well, tell us, Doc. What’s the answer?” I was running out of patience.
“Gentlemen, if you told me you had retrieved this specimen from a bathyspheric submarine I would have no doubt what it was. The fact that it came from South Texas, five hundred miles from saltwater, makes it a bit more problematical....”
“But if it had come from the ocean, then what?” Tom Gephardt was right on my wavelength.
“Elementary. Architeuthis, without question.”
“The giant squid. Almost everything about your sample is a perfect match for Architeuthis.” Dr. Elkins spread his hands as if revealing a magic trick.
“Wait a minute. So, there was somebody out there that got away?” Mickey was slow, but the reality was beginning to sweep over him.
“Why? What do you mean?”
“Somebody turned on a flashlight just before the attack. And then somebody used something, a weapon of some kind. Something cut Juan’s head right off. No damned squid was carrying a flashlight or a machete,” Mickey said.
“Flashlight? I hadn’t heard about that. Fascinating.” Elkins was positively beaming.
“I saw it plain as anything.”
“Fascinating. A photophore.”
“Squids have specialized structures called photophores. They can light them up like a searchlight to immobilize their prey. I’m not aware that we’ve seen this with Architeuthis, but frankly, there is no more unknown creature on this planet than Architeuthis.”
“But what about the weapon? That wasn’t from a squid.” Mickey wouldn’t give up.
“Oh, I’m quite sure it was. The incision marks on the victim . . .”
“Juan Beltrán.” I said. “He’s not just a lab sample.”
“Of course, sorry. The incision marks on Officer Beltrán’s neck precisely match the remnants of a tentacle we retrieved at the scene.”
“A tentacle?” Mickey persisted.
“Architeuthishas eight arms and two tentacles. The squid can shoot its tentacles, and the velocities in water are nothing short of astounding.”
“So in air they could fly out so fast they could cut Juan’s,” Mickey’s voice fell.
“You’re telling us that these deep sea creatures or whatever they are, were walking around out on the ground?” My creepy feeling returned full force.
“I doubt that was the plan,” Dr. Elkins said, warming to the idea, “I think what you saw was a crewman, so to speak, from a spaceship, it was wearing what would amount to an emergency space suit. I expect they never had the intention of being exposed to earth’s air.”
“What about the blue stuff we followed, was that what was in the big bag?” I had seen it and smelled it.
“No, the bag apparently contained something remarkably close to earth’s ocean water.”
“So, what was the blue stuff?”
Oh, that was the blood of Architeuthis, of course. It’s quite blue.”
“How did this thing end up in a spaceship crashing into South Texas?”
“That is the mystery of the age, I’m afraid. Perhaps Architeuthis came from outer space in the first place.”
“Real aliens, huh? Well, that’s sure enough a job for the Border Patrol—” I think I almost grinned, but it was the last time.
Seth was Johnny-on-the-spot with the cold water. “This is a national security matter. You either sign up to our version of this story or you’ll be held on material witness writs.”
“You can’t do that.” I was getting a sudden sinking feeling.
“With the Patriot Act in effect? Are you sure?” Seth had what might have passed as a smile on a normal man, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
I believed him then, and I still do. I signed the paper that day, along with Tom Gephardt and Mickey Wilson. Juan escaped the indignity the hard way.
We buried our partner and we all went on extended convalescent leave. DHS gave all of us medals for participating in a “special counterterrorism project,” and we zipped our lips.
Not long after that I heard that Mickey was drinking way too much, and Tom told me he thought Mickey might be running his mouth a little bit while he poured Bourbon into it.
It made me sad to hear a week or so later that Mickey had crashed his pick-up and killed himself, not three miles from where we found the van burning that night. It was strange though; he had driven that route a million times, drunk and sober.
I wrote it off as an accident until the evening of Independence Day when they found Tom Gephardt’s body. Tom wasn’t a drinker, but the explanation was that he had fallen into some kind of depression and had, as the saying goes in the Patrol, eaten his gun.
I stuck to the deal, but I began to get that feeling I used to have when I worked undercover for the DEA south of the border. Somebody was watching me. I’m not a great believer in government conspiracies, I know damned well how hard it is to keep secrets, but I began to form the opinion that Seth Marshall, or somebody in the Government was systematically getting rid of witnesses. I wish to God it had been that simple.
I had enough accrued leave to go away for a while, so I decided to get on the road, and see if the surveillance would let up.
Thinking back, I suppose I saw those white vans. There were plenty of stretches across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona where there was nobody around but me. If they followed me, I must have seen them, but they are the most common vehicles on the road so I guess they just didn’t register. It wasn’t till I arrived in the little nowhere town of Ligui, Baja del Sur, in Mexico that I noticed the three vehicles that followed me down the hill to the little double line of houses that flank the beach. They were all white vans with opaque windows.
Whoever is driving those things must have a powerful aversion to the sun, I thought to myself. They parked side-by-side in a scarce patch of shade on the east side of a ramshackle little house a close to the beach, but nobody got out. The vans sat there idling, and I supposed, running the air conditioners full blast. Later that night it began to make sense.
I sat in a little palapa joint overlooking the Gulf of California and ate fajitas and drank Mexican beer. Something was missing in Ligui. Finally if dawned on me. No dogs. I joked to the waiter, “han comieron todo los perros? Have they eaten all the dogs?” I meant it as a joke and I gestured with a tortilla filled with the delicious fajita meat.
His eyes were wild with fear. “A quién?”
“Cualquier,” I said, waving the tortilla. It meant like “whoever.”
“No sé,” he scuttled back into the kitchen.
By dusk the place was empty. I walked back toward my camper. That’s when I saw the three vans back out in unison. They looked like the Thunderbirds taxiing for an airshow. Absolute precision. The turned sequentially at the first cross street and headed for the beach. I ambled along till I could see the water and there they were, the three vans line abreast, backed into the water. Suddenly all hell broke loose.
There was splashing and thrashing. This time there were no plastic bags, just huge, gray shapes with lots of horrible suckered arms. They launched out into the water and were gone in a flash. The vans remained rear wheels just at the high tide line. Now the engines were silent.
I made it back to my camper and clung there, chest heaving, the taste of copper in my mouth. I got into my hide-out box and got my .45. It gave me comfort, but I knew in my heart I was kidding myself.
“No va hacer una differncia, eet won’ make no difference,” I jumped as if I had been shot. The old man looked at me with rheumy eyes. “They keeled all the dogs, señor. Las’ night they took a leetle girl.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Los calamares, those beeg esquids. They can walk on their arms for a little way.” He was all in white and he seemed almost luminous in the growing darkness. “They only need the vans to go far.”
“When did this start?”
“Maybe tres meses, three months, four. Meteores falling into the sea, now we see these so beeg esquids, and they get smarter. Now they come out.”
“Are there any more guns in this village?”
“I don’t think enough.”
Behind me I could hear the hiss and suck of the little breakers.
It was Christmas Eve, and the family circle of Luke Steffink, Esq., was aglow with the amiability and random mirth which the occasion demanded. A long and lavish dinner had been partaken of, waifs had been round and sung carols; the house-party had regaled itself with more caroling on its own account, and there had been romping which, even in a pulpit reference, could not have been condemned as ragging. In the midst of the general glow, however, there was one black unkindled cinder.
Bertie Steffink, nephew of the aforementioned Luke, had early in life adopted the profession of ne'er-do-well; his father had been something of the kind before him. At the age of eighteen Bertie had commenced that round of visits to our Colonial possessions, so seemly and desirable in the case of a Prince of the Blood, so suggestive of insincerity in a young man of the middle-class. He had gone to grow tea in Ceylon and fruit in British Columbia, and to help sheep to grow wool in Australia. At the age of twenty he had just returned from some similar errand in Canada, from which it may be gathered that the trial he gave to these various experiments was of the summary drum-head nature. Luke Steffink, who fulfilled the troubled role of guardian and deputy-parent to Bertie, deplored the persistent manifestation of the homing instinct on his nephew's part, and his solemn thanks earlier in the day for the blessing of reporting a united family had no reference to Bertie's return.
Arrangements had been promptly made for packing the youth off to a distant corner of Rhodesia, whence return would be a difficult matter; the journey to this uninviting destination was imminent, in fact a more careful and willing traveller would have already begun to think about his packing. Hence Bertie was in no mood to share in the festive spirit which displayed itself around him, and resentment smouldered within him at the eager, self-absorbed discussion of social plans for the coming months which he heard on all sides. Beyond depressing his uncle and the family circle generally by singing "Say au revoir, and not good-bye," he had taken no part in the evening's conviviality.
Eleven o'clock had struck some half-hour ago, and the elder Steffinks began to throw out suggestions leading up to that process which they called retiring for the night.
"Come, Teddie, it's time you were in your little bed, you know," said Luke Steffink to his thirteen-year-old son.
"That's where we all ought to be," said Mrs. Steffink.
"There wouldn't be room," said Bertie.
The remark was considered to border on the scandalous; everybody ate raisins and almonds with the nervous industry of sheep feeding during threatening weather.
"In Russia," said Horace Bordenby, who was staying in the house as a Christmas guest, "I've read that the peasants believe that if you go into a cow-house or stable at midnight on Christmas Eve you will hear the animals talk. They're supposed to have the gift of speech at that one moment of the year."
"Oh, DO let's ALL go down to the cow-house and listen to what they've got to say!" exclaimed Beryl, to whom anything was thrilling and amusing if you did it in a troop.
Mrs. Steffink made a laughing protest, but gave a virtual consent by saying, "We must all wrap up well, then." The idea seemed a scatterbrained one to her, and almost heathenish, but if afforded an opportunity for "throwing the young people together," and as such she welcomed it. Mr. Horace Bordenby was a young man with quite substantial prospects, and he had danced with Beryl at a local subscription ball a sufficient number of times to warrant the authorised inquiry on the part of the neighbours whether "there was anything in it." Though Mrs. Steffink would not have put it in so many words, she shared the idea of the Russian peasantry that on this night the beast might speak.
The cow-house stood at the junction of the garden with a small paddock, an isolated survival, in a suburban neighbourhood; of what had once been a small farm. Luke Steffink was complacently proud of his cow-house and his two cows; he felt that they gave him a stamp of solidity which no number of Wyandottes or Orpingtons could impart. They even seemed to link him in a sort of inconsequent way with those patriarchs who derived importance from their floating capital of flocks and herbs, he-asses and she-asses. It had been an anxious and momentous occasion when he had had to decide definitely between "the Byre" and "the Ranch" for the naming of his villa residence. A December midnight was hardly the moment he would have chosen for showing his farm-building to visitors, but since it was a fine night, and the young people were anxious for an excuse for a mild frolic, Luke consented to chaperon the expedition. The servants had long since gone to bed, so the house was left in charge of Bertie, who scornfully declined to stir out on the pretext of listening to bovine conversation.
"We must go quietly," said Luke, as he headed the procession of giggling young folk, brought up in the rear by the shawled and hooded figure of Mrs. Steffink; "I've always laid stress on keeping this a quiet and orderly neighbourhood."
It was a few minutes to midnight when the party reached the cow-house and made its way in by the light of Luke's stable lantern. For a moment every one stood in silence, almost with a feeling of being in church.
"Daisy -- the one lying down -- is by a shorthorn bull out of a Guernsey cow," announced Luke in a hushed voice, which was in keeping with the foregoing impression.
"Is she?" said Bordenby, rather as if he had expected her to be by Rembrandt.
"Myrtle is --"
Myrtle's family history was cut short by a little scream from the women of the party.
The cow-house door had closed noiselessly behind them and the key had turned gratingly in the lock; then they heard Bertie's voice pleasantly wishing them good-night and his footsteps retreating along the garden path.
Luke Steffink strode to the window; it was a small square opening of the old-fashioned sort, with iron bars set into the stonework.
"Unlock the door this instant," he shouted, with as much air of menacing authority as a hen might assume when screaming through the bars of a coop at a marauding hawk. In reply to his summons the hall-door closed with a defiant bang.
A neighbouring clock struck the hour of midnight. If the cows had received the gift of human speech at that moment they would not have been able to make themselves heard. Seven or eight other voices were engaged in describing Bertie's present conduct and his general character at a high pressure of excitement and indignation.
In the course of half an hour or so everything that it was permissible to say about Bertie had been said some dozens of times, and other topics began to come to the front -- the extreme mustiness of the cow-house, the possibility of it catching fire, and the probability of it being a Rowton House for the vagrant rats of the neighbourhood. And still no sign of deliverance came to the unwilling vigil-keepers.
Towards one o'clock the sound of rather boisterous and undisciplined carol-singing approached rapidly, and came to a sudden anchorage, apparently just outside the garden-gate. A motor-load of youthful "bloods," in a high state of conviviality, had made a temporary halt for repairs; the stoppage, however, did not extend to the vocal efforts of the party, and the watchers in the cow-shed were treated to a highly unauthorised rendering of "Good King Wenceslas," in which the adjective "good" appeared to be very carelessly applied.
The noise had the effect of bringing Bertie out into the garden, but he utterly ignored the pale, angry faces peering out at the cow-house window, and concentrated his attention on the revellers outside the gate.
"Wassail, you chaps!" he shouted.
"Wassail, old sport!" they shouted back; "we'd jolly well drink y'r health, only we've nothing to drink it in."
"Come and wassail inside," said Bertie hospitably; "I'm all alone, and there's heap's of 'wet'."
They were total strangers, but his touch of kindness made them instantly his kin. In another moment the unauthorised version of King Wenceslas, which, like many other scandals, grew worse on repetition, went echoing up the garden path; two of the revellers gave an impromptu performance on the way by executing the staircase waltz up the terraces of what Luke Steffink, hitherto with some justification, called his rock-garden. The rock part of it was still there when the waltz had been accorded its third encore. Luke, more than ever like a cooped hen behind the cow-house bars, was in a position to realise the feelings of concert-goers unable to countermand the call for an encore which they neither desire or deserve.
The hall door closed with a bang on Bertie's guests, and the sounds of merriment became faint and muffled to the weary watchers at the other end of the garden. Presently two ominous pops, in quick succession, made themselves distinctly heard.
"They've got at the champagne!" exclaimed Mrs. Steffink.
"Perhaps it's the sparkling Moselle," said Luke hopefully.
Three or four more pops were heard.
"The champagne and the sparkling Moselle," said Mrs. Steffink.
Luke uncorked an expletive which, like brandy in a temperance household, was only used on rare emergencies. Mr. Horace Bordenby had been making use of similar expressions under his breath for a considerable time past. The experiment of "throwing the young people together" had been prolonged beyond a point when it was likely to produce any romantic result.
Some forty minutes later the hall door opened and disgorged a crowd that had thrown off any restraint of shyness that might have influenced its earlier actions. Its vocal efforts in the direction of carol singing were now supplemented by instrumental music; a Christmas-tree that had been prepared for the children of the gardener and other household retainers had yielded a rich spoil of tin trumpets, rattles, and drums. The life-story of King Wenceslas had been dropped, Luke was thankful to notice, but it was intensely irritating for the chilled prisoners in the cow-house to be told that it was a hot time in the old town tonight, together with some accurate but entirely superfluous information as to the imminence of Christmas morning. Judging by the protests which began to be shouted from the upper windows of neighbouring houses the sentiments prevailing in the cow-house were heartily echoed in other quarters.
The revellers found their car, and, what was more remarkable, managed to drive off in it, with a parting fanfare of tin trumpets. The lively beat of a drum disclosed the fact that the master of the revels remained on the scene.
"Bertie!" came in an angry, imploring chorus of shouts and screams from the cow-house window.
"Hullo," cried the owner of the name, turning his rather errant steps in the direction of the summons; "are you people still there? Must have heard everything cows got to say by this time. If you haven't, no use waiting. After all, it's a Russian legend, and Russian Chrismush Eve not due for 'nother fortnight. Better come out."
After one or two ineffectual attempts he managed to pitch the key of the cow-house door in through the window. Then, lifting his voice in the strains of "I'm afraid to go home in the dark," with a lusty drum accompaniment, he led the way back to the house. The hurried procession of the released that followed in his steps came in for a good deal of the adverse comment that his exuberant display had evoked.
It was the happiest Christmas Eve he had ever spent. To quote his own words, he had a rotten Christmas.
(from Saki's short story collection The Toys of Peace, 1919)