Fiction Sad Mystery

People had laughed at him. Called him an old fool. Well, Jeremiah didn’t care. It had been a month without the summer rains, and things were dire— even his little pump-well had run dry. As he walked, he mused how the younger generation had seemed to have turned sour. Mired too much in their education, their almanacs, the lectures and dictates of government men who came by with leaflets on fertilizers. Something in that mix had made the young people mean-spirited, spiteful towards old things; mocking and irreverent. Jeremiah spat into the dust. He watched it evaporate in the caked dirt, overwhelmed by the world around. There was a sadness to it.

They had never learned the old ways. Well, he had. He continued his shuffling walk and stopped momentarily to check his position. He nodded and continued. When he had begun his meanderings, people had stared and laughed. Ten years ago, before Mary had passed, they wouldn’t have done so. With her mop of charcoal hair and sweet intelligence, people had respected her, and found him charming by attachment. But now that she was gone and plotted into the red Kansas clay east of town, he was no longer charming. He was eccentric. Strange. An old coot.

Well, to hell with them. That morning when Jeremiah had fished out the old iron rods with their curved handles and began walking through town, holding them out before him and watching their haphazard twitching, he hadn’t stopped to explain to the gawkers. He did not chastise the little cretons who said he looked like an ant, relating to them the ancient art of dowsing and how it had served their hardy ancestors on the frontier. How, bedraggled, and dirty and dying of thirst they had used such instruments to navigate and find underground sources of water to quench their trail-dried bodies.

When he passed the general store and the young clerk in the window – who had once played in he and Mary’s apple orchard – shook his head, he did not enter and tell him how, at his age, Jeremiah had seen his Uncle Hurk use these same rods to find a wellspring on their property. How they had swiveled and turned and shook and his uncle had followed them in faltering steps until the bars had crossed. That when they had dug for a mere ten minutes, their shovels pooled in the clearest and cleanest water Jeremiah had ever seen.   

And when the poles swerved, imperceptibly so, he did not argue with the little turnup who yelled at him to get off his property. He simply continued to shuffle through the dead field, leaving a wake of dust behind him as a schooner cutting across some desert ocean. Under the hot sun he followed their direction, out of the field and into the rolling thickets and dales of the country. The buildings of the little town slowly crept into the distance, and he found himself alone. Dust caked his jeans and thorns tore at his ankles.

Occasionally, doubt crept into his mind, as the iron bars would stop their proboscis searching and simply bob up and down, with no animation in mind other than those directed by his shaking and aged hands. In a flash he would feel embarrassed despite himself, like a child whose game is broken by uncaring reality. He would think of the staring townsfolk and their judgements. Then he would think of his wife, Uncle Hurk, and the fool things men do without the guidance of women.

Uncle Hurk had never married. Kind in his way, he was always considered something of an… eccentric (the word now made Jeremiah’s neck tighten) by the family. Hurk had a proclivity for the old ways, dowsing being foremost amongst them. Witch-sticks, divination, people have always known its way, he would say, with Jeremiah at his elbows as they trod through the grassy fields of his youth, they call it radiesthesia now, but the name doesn’t matter. You can find water, precious metals. The secret things of the Earth. Jeremiah had been awed by the man then, but a small voice in his mind had begun to suspect his preoccupations were spawned from a lack of productive direction borne from loneliness.

As Jeremiah swam in such thoughts, absently looking at his cracked hands, the rod pivoted with such force that that it snapped into his face. He started from the impact and dropped the irons. He felt his lip and tasted copper from where it had cut into his teeth. What had he done? Had he twisted into something? After a moment reordering himself, he picked the metal up and straightened them to the position he had held. They swung hard to the right, twisting the skin of his palms, and this time Jeremiah shifted to avoid their trajectory.

He blinked. He straightened them once more, loosening his grip as much as he dared on the curved junction of the metal while keeping his wrists ramrod straight. They swung again as before, as if drawn to a nearby and potent magnetism. A grin spread across Jeremiah’s face and he gave a hoot. Had his bones been up for it, he would have done a little jig, out alone in that backcountry. Instead, he righted his direction and set off.

At first, he thought they were leading him in the opposite direction, back to the town. Slowly he could see the white-washed squat shapes of the buildings creeping into view. He did not relish the thought of walking back through. The town had over the years become an unnatural place to him that he understood less. His throat was parched; he licked his lips.

He sat down and took out his small canteen. As the shadows had lengthened into late afternoon, his bones ached. Taking meager sips of water, he stared at the collection of buildings which had had crept closer. He recalled the day he had made Mary his wife. Near the entire community had come out for the affair. I love you, she had whispered in his ear at the altar. She was radiant then, her wedding dress trimmed closely to her then thin figure, olive skin beautiful in contrast to the white gown, over which her twisting onyx hair flowed. He had been a looker too, tall and strong. The honeysuckles were carried on the spring breeze as they’d left the church, making the air sweet. Everyone had cheered. It had been the greatest day of his life.

He scratched at the sweat under his armpit. The honeysuckles were long dried up, and those friends were laid in the soil next to Mary. He spat and got up, readying himself to return to his home of living ghosts. But then the rods turned in a more easterly direction and he realized that he was following something of an arc. He continued walking, stopping every so often and loosening his grip when the metal became directionless and confused. Sometimes he would have to wait several minutes until they angled in a roughly defined congruence to each other. Then he would continue.

The petty succor given at avoiding the settlement was replaced by a drop in his stomach when he discerned another recognizable landmark. Out of the wafting heat of the hardpan and through the intermittent brambles, a low curved limestone wall that gleaned white under the sun like a bleached rib. The cemetery. His thinking mind assumed that perhaps there was a groundswell in the vicinity, as around the far parameter a thicket of cottonwoods had always seemed to thrive. But an inexplicable part of him was not surprised that his meandering steps slowly narrowed his path towards the burial ground. When by measure he arrived at the gate and the iron rods swung deliberately towards the arched portal, he simply stared.

He had only been there a handful of times since the wake. Most of the community had come to the event, but they had been more akin to morbid tourists than friends in grief. They made speeches and shared remembrances aplenty but had little to say to him beyond the obligatory condolences and empty handshakes. They had disappeared like shades after eating his food and drinking his beer. By late afternoon it had been only himself left. In the following months he would make the intermittent pilgrimage as his loneliness rose, but he found the ritual disheartening. He did not feel Mary’s presence or any other spirits of the past. It was a barren place whose only company was the wind. The secret things of the Earth, it now seemed to murmur. He let it lead him inside.

The gravel walkway of the circular burial grounds crunched under his boots as he entered. The community was small, but by the generations had grown established and the place reflected this. Rows of slate and granite headstones dotted the soil like the teeth of a child’s mouth, opened to the sky for examination. Jeremiah looked over the rows, making a conscious effort to avoid the south-western corner where he had laid Mary to rest. He noticed for the first time that the older stones seemed to have stood the years well, while the newer ones had inexplicably become weathered and showed signs of marked deterioration.

The irons’ directionality and purpose now had a definitive course, and Jeremiah imagined they exhibited what might have been the ghost of a pull to them. When they turned him to the northern section, he felt a concrete knot unwrap itself in his chest. The animation of the metal now seemed almost life like, the sway and bounce of their motions taking on a character that reminded Jeremiah of the twitching ears of a jackrabbit listening for predators. When he had almost reached the parameter of the low limestone wall, his course changed to carry him along its eastern trajectory. The dowsing rods crossed.

Jeremiah set them down and cast his gaze about. He had never been to this section of the cemetery. He was nowhere near the old cottonwoods. Looking at the ground, he noticed an outcropping of daisies that seemed to thrive amongst the stony earth in defiance of the leaching sun. Taking a knee that cracked like a gunshot, he searched the ground. The shadow of the squat rock wall was now reaching long across the ground under the dying sun. This shade somewhat obscured his view, and so he did not at first see the darker recess of black hidden in the folds of gravel near the flowers; now he could see it. Discerning a hole or burrow of some kind, Jeremiah unsheathed the spade he had tucked under his belt and pierced the ground with it, hoping to find discolorations betraying hidden moister seeped from the depths.

He dug at the bitter earth for several minutes until his spade hit an immovable mass with a sharp scratch of metal. By measure he unearthed a large black stone, reflective like glass. Obsidian. The rock was hefty, enough for two hands and some effort. Digging around its outline, he removed enough of the gravelly soil to wrap his fingers around its sharp edges. Before he pulled, something in his chest shifted in a disconcerting apprehension. He relaxed his grip for a moment. Then the wind swept through the grounds. Perhaps it was the contortion of air through the cracks in the limestone wall, or the rustling of the cottonwoods by lengths away, but something in its tenor whispered the memories of Mary’s voice. In a correlation he could neither understand nor articulate, he felt the need to continue. He yanked hard at the boulder, dislodging it.

At first Jeremiah thought that, through some herculean miscalculation, he had underestimated the weight of the rock and pulled himself to it. All swam in black, as if he had dived into the vulcan blackness of the glass, and he felt himself pitch forward. It was only when his head met no resistance that he registered the sound of spilling gravel and the tearing of earth and knew he was falling. Within the suspended moment of his fall, Jeremiah felt sure his neck would break from the impact of landing. He was surprised then to find himself on his back, cushioned by a soft loam and apparently unharmed by the incident, save the wind having been knocked out of his lungs.

He sat up dazedly, taking a mental inventory and attempting to calm the instinctive rush of panic. After deciding that he was not injured, Jeremiah slowly got to his feet. The dim light of early evening peered through the rough aperture through which he fell. The place he found himself was a semi-circular space, the bottom of which undulated in a rough floor of soft soil. Jeremiah looked up at the hole. It was small and strangely well defined, hanging perhaps two body-lengths above him. Directly under the hole was a wall of soil, angled to where Jeremiah believed he could climb out. As he clawed at its surface and attempted to find a foothold, he realized the earth was entrenched in a lattice of thick roots. Unable to find a purchase, he rested. After a moment, he eyed the roots themselves. He could see the network spanned the entirety of the wall.  

Something about the lattice seemed strange. Unable to account for his curiosity, he stood up and looked closer. They were obviously the roots of the flowers above, but there were too many of them to suffice the paltry growth above the entrance. Too thick. They connected in a map of nodules that were white and bloated. Like cancerous accretions whose growth had outpaced their purpose and design. Within these structures he could see under the weak sun an apparent flashing motion. Edging closer until his nose almost touched, he squinted his old eyes. Rushing within the white tubulars was something. Water.

His surprise caught him off-guard and as he stepped back, he lost his footing. Stumbling and hitting the opposite wall, something sharp and painful knocked into his shoulder. He turned to find the side of the cavern opposite him an angular black surface, at points broken into seemingly polished angles that reflected the evening light in a bloody web of illumination. A huge vein of broken obsidian which crept along the space in one great and shattered vein. In its broken reflection, his image distorted, stretched at sundry angles to give a collective effect that made him look taller, with the face of a younger man deprived of the wrinkles he had awoken with that morning. The pallid and sickly roots of the flowers reflected in the dark silicate a juxtaposed beauty, its layered complex seemingly gentle and billowing. It reminded him of twisting bands of voluptuous black hair.

The scraping of metal tore him from his observance, and he looked down to see the dowsing rods had fallen with him. The sound authored from one whose bent handle junction rested in the dirt against the black glass, on which it now slowly scraped. It was twitching and being pulled gently by some unseen force. Its nearby twin mimicked its faltering movements. Looking in their direction he saw that the cavern apparently extended in a south-westerly direction. It was into this blackness that the iron bars now gently pulled. The secret things of the Earth. Seeing there was no exit by the way he had come and that further mysteries proffered in this illusory place, he picked up the metal lengths and continued to follow them.

As he left the sunlight, blackness enveloped him. Though he could not see them, he felt sure in his footing. In the void, the twisting of the rods led him, and their undulating and reflexive bounce from before had seemed to straighten out. They had lost their ambivalence; become focused. He could smell the water around him, and he assumed the roots continued their growth far into the complex as he went. The cobbled echo of his steps likewise told him the vein of obsidian spanned the path he found himself on. Walking the between these fey and elemental formations, Jeremiah felt a light breeze begin to waft through the cavern, blowing against him out of the darkness. It felt sweet.

He did not know for how long he walked. Occasionally he would stumble and feel the damp wall of roots against his shoulder, or absently walk into the crystalline and jagged rock, which scraped and bit into his flesh. But he continued. He felt unaccountably stronger and increasingly unconcerned with such obstacles.

The air continued to blow in a pleasant breeze, and he smelled the faint perfume of honeysuckles. In time a dim light unveiled itself from the cosmic depths. It grew brighter as he approached, and he felt the space around him open. On the breeze carried the sound of laughter and cheers. His pace quickened. The light grew brighter, and the wind carried sweet and lilting cognates which seemed to form words in his ear. I love you, it said in Mary’s voice. Brighter and brighter now. The light was before him, like a door. He dropped the rods to the ground, thudding into the soft soil, their purpose fulfilled. He began to run on legs strong and sure, into the light. Into the better days of youth and friendship and the grassy fields at the end of the path.

No one ever found Jeremiah. Those acquainted with him said that he had become rudderless since his wife's passing. Those of more sour disposition said he was an old fool, given to strange behaviors. The consensus was that the last anyone had seen of him, he had been walking out of town, holding two metal rods, and meandering in a pathless wander.

January 16, 2024 00:52

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Timothy Rennels
19:50 Jan 21, 2024

Congratulations Craig, this is an excellent piece! Your writing lifts this story up from the start, and it never touches back down. Write on!


Craig Scott
00:21 Jan 22, 2024

Dear Timothy, Thank you very much for the kind comments!


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Mary Bendickson
21:56 Jan 25, 2024

I find this to be a compelling story that pulls one along from the beginning to end with your well-defined descriptions and painted scenes and memories. I think it should be a winner. Very well done. Jeremiah found what he was looking for.


Craig Scott
22:38 Jan 25, 2024

Dear Mary, I really appreciate your comments, thank you very much! I started off wanting to write something resembling "The Silver Key," by HP Lovecraft, and it turned into this. Hopefully a little more hopeful. Cheers!


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J. D. Lair
00:03 Jan 23, 2024

This very well could be the winner this week Craig! So many lines I love, that I cannot narrow them down. Wonderful from beginning to end. :) Thanks for sharing!


Craig Scott
07:29 Jan 23, 2024

Dear J.D., I'm very glad you enjoyed the story, and I really appreciate your kind words and encouragement! Cheers!


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David Sweet
16:21 Jun 02, 2024

Another outstanding story! I didn't see where this was going exactly. I almost expected him to find aliens. Haha. But I like the conclusion. I'm enjoying all of your stories so far.


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