Bison Grass Vodka Green Chartreuse
Brisket and White Beans
Mark knocked on the front door around midnight. I opened the door, and though I hadn’t turned on the porch light I could see he was carrying a fishing pole and wearing a fisherman’s hat. The kind that sported several lures hooked into the hatband.
“You look ridiculous,” I said. He laughed.
“You look like a huge potato,” he said.
I was wearing my white protective suit. I hadn’t put the hood up and strapped on my headlamp yet. “Just wait,” I said. “It get’s worse. What’s with the fishing gear?”
“I told Bonnie we were going night fishing. I had to tell her something.”
Mark’s wife is extremely smart; I’m sure she didn’t believe him, but she’s also a good sport. She probably thought we were up to something, but she isn’t the suspicious type. There were lots of ridiculous things Mark and I could be up to at midnight, but they’re mostly, like I said, ridiculous rather than dangerous.
This afternoon I found Mark working in his garden and talked him into an afternoon drink at the Penny. I had a Bison Grass Vodka and a Green Chartreuse. I realized, or rather remembered that I had had my first and only taste of this Polish vodka specialty almost fifty years ago when I attended an event at the Polish Embassy in Washington, DC. I have no idea why I had been invited; I assumed at the time it was a mistake. I was a hippie back in those days, or at least I looked like one; hair way down my back, beard, groovy clothing. After knocking back several shots of the curious vodka, which a passing waiter told me was a “special flavored vodka, a drink made only in Poland,” an embassy aide came up and asked me if I would have a private word with the ambassador? Of course I would. He took me into a back room where an attractive older lady was sitting in a chair that looked like a throne with several suited minions scattered around her. One of the minions introduced her very formally as the Ambassador; I introduced myself. We made some small talk, very small as she barely spoke English and no one bothered to translate, and I asked her about the vodka: How was it made? She said, very clearly, that it was made from “squashed peasants.” I nodded gravely and we chatted for a few more minutes. I could tell she was interested in my hippyness; I suppose that functionaries on her level didn’t get to mingle with street creatures like me, at least not back in those days. Then she asked me to come to lunch some time, at least I think that’s what she asked. I never followed up on it, I kept thinking about those squashed peasants. When I took a sip of my Bison vodka at the Penny, the taste rushed me back to that afternoon of yesteryear, like an alcoholic version of Proust and his Madeline.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, Mark. I hadn’t seen him much in quite some time, so I filled him in on my events with the underhouse creatures, concluding with my adventure to the graveyard last night. As always, he sat through the recitation with his mild smile of amusement that shouted, “You’re crazy!” I explained my three-part plan, and he agreed to help me out with tonight’s excursion, the second part.
So he came in and waited while I gathered up my gear: headband light, a thirty-foot length of nylon rope, and a purple tote bag from Weavers, the local organic grocery store. He took off his hat. “Bring the fishing pole, it might be useful,” I said.
We marched through the house – I kept the lights off – went out the back door, and around the side to the entrance to the crawlspace where the furnace is. I had leaned the shovel that Mark found under the house many blog posts ago against the door.
“Tell me again why we aren’t doing this during the day?” he asked.
“The last time I went under there during the day the house almost fell on me. And my camera that I bought off the Internet ended up smashed into one of the pillars. And I didn’t see any evidence of the little girl. I don’t think she likes the daytime, and I think it pisses off the house.” He nodded, as if ‘it pisses off the house’ was a perfectly normal thing to say.
I tightened the drawstring around the hoody till only a round blob of my face was uncovered. I strapped on the headlamp and switched on the light. I could hear Mark sniggering behind me. I fooled around with the shovel for a minute, hefting it in my right hand, tote bag containing the rope in my left. I was building up my nerve. After a few minutes of this foolishness I said, “Let’s go,” and descended the four stairs to the dirt floor of the crawlspace. At this point we could stand up, with just our heads touching the hanging stalactites of pink insulation.
“OK, here’s the deal,” I said. “I’m going to tie the rope around my ankle. If you hear me yell Pull! drag me out of wherever I am under here. I can crawl backward, but if I’ve got you hauling on me I’m going to go a lot faster than If I’m on my own. I’m only going to holler if I’m in trouble.” Mark’s in good shape, so I figured he could add a good bit of speed to my escape. As they say, what could go wrong? I sat down on an ancient stone ledge, took the rope out of my tote bag and tied the end around my right ankle. Now that I was doing it, it seemed stupid, only slightly better than tying the rope around my own neck. I pushed these self-doubts away: stick to the plan. I tried to forget the well-known military axiom that in war even the best-laid plans survive for only the first 30 seconds of battle. After that, who knows? Chaos, usually.
“Hand me the fishing pole,” I said, trying to sound like I knew what I was doing. He handed it to me.
It was a regular spinning reel and rod, heavy enough for what I had in mind. I took the bobber off the line, put it on the shelf beside me, and attached the bare hook to the handle of the tote bag. “When I say the word, reel the bag in. It’s going to have bones in it, I don’t know how many, but it should be light enough to drag out of there.” I gestured vaguely into the dark beneath the house. The headlamp was bright enough to throw most of the expanse into deep shadow. In the glare, Mark’s face appeared extremely pale, but he gave me his usual, You’re So Full of Shit, smile. I tried to return it, but to tell you the truth I was scared. I’m not sure of what, but something. Whatever was there in the dark.
I tuned into my senses for a moment and listened: no weeping. Dead silence. This was almost as unnerving as hearing the weeping.
I ducked under the main heating duct, crawled up on the ledge and began making my way into the dusty, rocky crawl space. It was a longer distance to the back of the house than if we’d gone into the side where I set up, or tried to set up, the camera, but the opening there faced the next-door neighbor’s house, and if they happened to be looking out the window they would be witnessing a very strange scene involving a night fisherman and a large white ambulatory potato. Going in where the furnace is located kept me out of view from anyone.
It’s amazing how painful even the smallest rock is underneath the knees of a portly 73-year-old man. I was now further along beneath the house than I have ever been. The light was very bright, so I flicked it onto the red setting, which made everything look like those scenes in submarine movies where the sub is deeply submerged and the main power system has been blown. I stopped to catch my breath and allow my eyes to adjust. The weeping began, not in my ear, but inside my head: forlorn, afraid.
I dragged myself around a thick pillar made up of stone blocks, grey, the grimy color of the weathered gravestones in the Town Cemetery only now suffused with the blood-red hue.
And there, ten, twelve feet away from me was a shallow trough, beside which was a neatly stacked pile of bones. And there, five feet beyond the bones was the little girl, only now there were no sewn lips, this was no Nightmare Before Christmas doll, this was the real thing, or to my eyes the real thing, diaphanous, indistinct but clearly visible, surrounded by a thick, jelly-like mist that curled heavily around, beneath, and above her, as if clutching her in a translucent embrace. She saw me, and wailed a pitiful tone of hurt, loss, and despair, of no hope, only abject misery.
I didn’t, couldn’t, take my eyes off her as I inched toward the bones, putting my hand with the shovel forward, dragging myself along while I inched the Weaver tote bag along in my left hand.
My breath sounded like a bellows in my ears; the weeping lament became a rising howl of pain. I tried to ignore it, pushed on against it, now keeping my eyes on the bones, afraid to look at her, until I was close enough to stop, drag my bag up in front of me and begin piling the bones into the bag. Leg bones, arm bones, a chunk of skull, small chunks of finger bones, I was guessing they were fingers, a pelvis, scooping them up and jamming them into the bag, my breathing rough, gagging from the dust, hoping that these bones would be enough bones because there was no chance I was going to do any digging, knowing this was it as far as my nerve was concerned because I was on the very tipping edge of screaming loud enough to drown out the wailing howl of pain. If I could have stood and run, this would have been the moment I would have thrown it all down and fled.
I looked up, the last of the bones in the bag, and something — to this day I don’t know what — made me reach up to the headband light and flick the switch from the deep red position to the white, white, white glaring light.
It was as if I was in some movie theatre in Hell and the film just jammed and there in the glare, clear and crisp, was Ada, and the misty presence that flowed around her was revealed to be a man, and I could see him clearly, he was dressed in a pale, dirty white shirt and rough butternut-dyed pants, and he was the cop who had driven me home the night before, the hooked-nose man of indeterminate race with the knowing, evil eyes, the same man, the same man who had promised me there would be Hell To Pay.