The Black Dogs Among Us
By - July St. John
October 7, 1829
Gloucester Police Department
10 Waters Way
Attn: Det. Duncansone
Your presence is urgently needed. There have been two murders on Friar Isle. One, that of my father, I witnessed three days prior to this letter. The other, my sister, a little over seven years ago, for which I am responsible. I was but a boy then and though I had never harbored ill will or a harsh word toward my sister, she fell at my hand. I would rather die in a prison cell than walk free on this isle.
My father, surname Ancroft, first name Androu, I hated. I carried his name as a millstone around my neck. Every miserable year our family has lived on this island has been worse than the last. Hopefully, I shall describe the events surrounding his death in sufficient detail to provide you with the confidence that this is not a lark.
A dark and evil presence looms on this island, consuming all who set foot on it, betraying their once sound logic, and leaving them destitute in the arms of false faith. I also write to you because I cannot share my name, and upon your arrival I will not be able to speak freely. I am risking enough writing this letter and there will be a short list of suspicion regarding those of us on the island who may have beckoned your call.
This past Sunday, as we walked single file up the narrow path to the mountaintop, I focused on my father and studied his gait. I was struck and shaken by the stark contrast of my father's weakness set against my uncle’s strength. They were walking one behind the other. My uncle never wobbled nor appeared unsteady. My father however, struggled to keep up and balanced on every rock or wall he could. This is the visible manifestation of seven years of water dripping on a stone, wearing a once proud man down one drop at a time.
I’ll return to the events this past Sunday, but I should give you some of the history. The context does not explain what happened this past Sunday, but it adds to the culpability of those involved. To begin, my uncle is Johne Ancroft, the pastor to his brother's worldly ambition. It was Uncle Johne's idea to come here, the reason being "to leave behind a world beset by sin at every turn, our family to stand as the light on a hill, unsoiled and uncompromising." For months, when Uncle Johne and Aunt Cathy came over, I sat on the stairs, listening to him unsettle my parents with stories of the depravity of our age and the danger of sending young children into an increasingly dark world.
I would wager that my mother, Mary, became convinced of the evil lurking in the world at large, and my father felt he had no choice but to either join the family band in exile or wage war as a soloist in secularity. The orchestra of doubt conducted by Uncle Johne on all those evening occasions was deafening and my father eventually relented. If only he knew what his choice to relent would portend, a crescendo from that orchestra so loud, only the dead could not hear.
Within a few months, we were all packing for our new life. The morning of our departure, my father sipped his tea, staring straight ahead, blankly. Sometimes I wonder if he could see the suffering in his path. When I spoke to him, he merely grunted. Before those evening visits with my uncle turned so dark, my father and I would talk of his business, or he would tell stories, or sometimes we would even sing songs. Not often mind you, but my father had a wonderful tone to his voice, a true blessing from God. Looking back, I now realize my father's death was a death of a thousand cuts, the first knife plunged in by my uncle when he planted the seed of fear in my mother's mind.
The day we left to come here was when my hate for my father was born. I blame him for the hellish experience we have all endured at my uncle’s hand for these past seven years. If my father had a backbone, we would still be happy, living a normal life back home. Had he stood up to my Uncle Johne and spoken his own mind, had he confronted my mother with logic, had he done anything other than retreat in pure cowardice, he would be alive, and I would not be a murderer.
Last Sunday, all 27 of us walked in single file up a craggy path covered in moss and dirt for Uncle Johne's sermon (our lot had grown much to the pleasure of Johne’s pride). It was to be a special sermon. We were told all week to "come expecting." My stomach was in knots because I had lived with the notion God would smite me in a holy vengeance for my sister's death, and since this was the seven-year anniversary of that fateful day, I feared my wait was over. Although I didn’t know it then, my fear was well founded, but not for that reason.
You see, I was young when we arrived at Friar Isle, and my sister Agnes was five. One day, soon after our arrival, we had service on the mountain. I remember everyone gathering to pray near the cliff. I was to Agnes’ left, facing the cliff, and her back was to the cliff. As we all gathered around her and prayed, she fell. I stood in horror. I had been praying for her, earnestly so. Immediately, I opened my eyes and found everyone staring back at me. My hand was still outstretched as it had been whilst we were praying. My mind was frozen. I was the closest to where she had been standing, the small group were all a step back. You can't possibly fathom what I felt in that moment. Not even close. My uncle struck me so hard I nearly fell backwards off the cliff myself. Were it not for my brother grabbing my arm I certainly would have fallen to my death. I wish it had been so. After he struck me, I remember he talked about sacrifice, and how sacrifice was the one thing that set us apart from the secular world, which was characterized wholly by selfishness, a carnal self-centeredness that governed every decision. I bled from his fist and tears mixed with that blood as it fell to the dirt. We descended the mountain and for the next seven years I was told I pushed my sister. I was an outcast. I had no memory of that moment, yet the guilt was overwhelming.
My father completely and utterly lost his mind when Agnes died. He never returned from his grieving stupor nor spoke a word to me. He hated me as much as I hated him. He utterly abandoned those who remained in his home, blaming all of us I suppose. Eventually I came to see that his death was a slow death rooted in cowardice. It saddens me to say, but the thing about roots, Detective, is they eventually bear fruit, one way or the other.
Returning to the mountain this past Sunday, although I had no idea of the specifics to come, each step forward I carried all that I have described thus far, a burden that instilled in me a deeper sense of foreboding the closer we got to the top. At the summit, we gathered into a circle as always, holding hands. Johne stood on the very cliff where everything had happened seven years ago. I shall relay only the most pertinent portions of the sermon that day as I believe, looking back, the words used that morning were accomplices to my father's death.
"Sacrifice and faith go hand in hand, partners equal on our purification journey." Everyone looked on in silence, Johne continued, "Are we immune from suffering?! Are we better than Paul? Or Timothy? Or Steven? Or Christ?!...We are chosen, set apart, to exist in this body, apart from the fallen sin, apart from the snakes and temptation of the garden. Our faith must prove us worthy of such a calling. Abraham was asked to do exactly what we are asked to do today."
It felt like my heart stopped at the mention of Abraham, the last time he had mentioned Abraham my sister died. [LA1] "God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham did not hesitate, but Abraham, I believe, fell short. God did not send that ram. God was not pleased when the knife fell by his side. Abraham failed the test that day. God gave Abraham one last chance to prove his faith and he failed. He was weak. And it showed as his family fell into the greatest sin we've ever known, until today, at Sodom."
Had you surveyed the faces of the group at that moment, you would have seen their countenance change. Johne made eye contact with each one, except my father who, as usual, did not look up. Silence hung in the air. The sun, attempting to break through the dark clouds, bathed us in a sickly light. The wind and waves birthed a din of sound that lulled us into a trance, until Johne's voice cut through again, like a machete in a thicket. He stepped towards my father, and the horrific deed commenced.
"Men and women…this day is the day brother Androu was born for. This is the day he enables us to atone for all we've done wrong. We must die to ourselves for God to bless us, and brother Androu…" Johne paused and closed his eyes, face up to the sky, "...Brother Androu, today is your day. We celebrate with you brother! If it were not for you, evil would certainly be visited upon us! You are our brother! You are our path and our example! You are our sacrifice!" By now Uncle Johne was inches from my father, both hands on his forehead. The rest of the group, pressed in further, laying hands on my father in an act of prayer. My father began looking around somewhat desperately. I stood back a few feet from the crowd. A mindless fervor seemed to possess them all.
Johne took my father by the shoulders, turning him around so his back was to the cliff. Johne put his head down, eyes closed, and began chanting his prayer, "Dying to self, living for others. Dying to self, living for others." The group inched towards the cliff. I stayed put, nauseous, frozen. The look on my father’s face became increasingly panicked. Sir, I felt powerless, in shock at what was apparently taking place. Surely it couldn't be! At this point, Uncle Johne no longer had his hands on Father's forehead. He wasn't touching him anywhere that I could tell. In fact, he stood still, eyes raised to heaven, and the group pressed forward, moving around him like a river flowing ‘round a rock.
As they approached the cliff, the group stopped, and those at Father's back circled around to the sides. By this time, my father stood little more than a metre from the edge, tears strewn about on his face, a look of terror in his eyes. Johne summoned his authority, looked around in a grandiose gesture, and then stared my father square in the eye. "There is no ram in the thicket brother. We cannot be deceived. God has made his plan clear. Mary, please come forward." My mother emerged from the crowd, tears welling up in her eyes as she laid a hand on my father's forehead. My brothers came up on either side and behind my mother, followed by the rest of the group. They all began praying and walking, hands outstretched, pushing my father backwards. He screamed out to me that he was sorry. The pain in those words haunts me, a scar I must carry forever. I saw a moment of sheer panic cross his face as he glanced backward, then…he was gone. Just like that. His screams evaporated into the ether, carried far away by the howling winds. I never heard his body hit below. As soon as he disappeared over the edge, the group erupted into wailing sounds of grief.
Before long, however, these sounds became more and more celebratory. A song broke out, led by my Uncle Johne. I sat down, removed from everything, much like my father would have been. I felt darkness everywhere.[LA2] I also felt guilt at the hate I’d had for my father mere moments earlier, walking up the mountain. These emotions swirled within me, as I fixated on Uncle Johne. He had his arm around my mother as they combined to lead the group in song, smiling through it all. I cannot tell you with certainty whose hands forced Father over the edge, but I can tell you that I did not discern a single dissenting voice.
My father was murdered, do not let anyone convince you otherwise upon your arrival. The image that still stares back at me when I close my eyes, invading my soul with a merciless appetite to destroy all hope, is the sight of the many tears falling from the murderous brood, but not of grief, of joy. The one question that burns in my heart now is whether my sister suffered the same fate at my hand. Did the dark curtain that envelopes this isle blind me as I shoved my sister to her death? Detective, I beg you, please investigate both deaths. I feel sure my fate is already written.
I must conclude this letter. God is not pleased by the blood shed on this rock. These two sacrifices were made at the altar of evil. I would say God isn't here but then I remember that even Jesus descended into the bowels of hell for a period when he died. Sir, I must give you fair warning, most everyone who came to this isle came as visitors fully intending to leave but there is a magnetic pull to this place, under whose power you may also succumb.
I look out my window at these prophets of Baal with whom I share blood, both in deed and in family line, carrying on undeterred…abject evil unpunished. Detective Duncansone, I hope you are a Christian man, and if you are, that you are a praying one. Please know that you do not battle flesh and blood. No, your war is with the powers and principalities of the air.
I pray for your victory in this war, though I fear prayer alone is not enough.