In honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, I’m offering here the Prologue of OAK CLIFF: A TALE OF DARKNESS AND DESPAIR.
Inky darkness cloaked the bedroom as the gaunt figure of a man carefully drew back the layers of bedclothes from the flannel-clad, sleeping woman. With fingers rendered stiff and icy cold by the frigid night air he hoisted her from the warmth of the bed, murmuring soothingly into her ear. Her eyes fluttered open and she tried to focus but it was difficult for her to see clearly. Although the woman could barely make out the man’s silhouette through a drug-induced haze, her senses told her she had nothing to fear. She snuggled closer into the security of her husband’s arms, resting her head on his shoulder. His presence gave her comfort. The woman’s eyelids drooped as her head nodded forward, her hair partially obscuring her face. The man halted momentarily, balancing himself and firming his grip on the woman’s slight frame. Assuring himself that his hold on his wife was still secure the man moved out to the hall.
Despite her dishevelment, the peaceful look on his wife’s face made her appear almost angelic. The man’s grimace softened; the depth of his love for her was evident. But that loving gaze instantaneously reverted to a hard, glassy stare.
He made his way to the top of the staircase, grateful for the pale moonlight filtering through a frosty windowpane. Moving cautiously, he paused briefly on each of the steep, narrow steps on the way to the kitchen below. She mustn’t awake!
A thin sliver of moonlight from another frosted window weakly illuminated the spacious kitchen that retained some warmth from the swiftly cooling coal-burning stove. The woman stirred in his arms, her muscles relaxing a tiny bit as her body detected the slight increase in air temperature; the threadbare nightgown she wore only served as a modesty panel, offering little warmth to its wearer.
With the tip of a foot encased in worn leather the man nudged open a door leading to the cellar. Here too the wooden stairs were steep, narrow, and without benefit of a railing. A shaft of dim light down below pierced the darkness as it cast deep shadows on all sides of the stairs, providing little guidance for the man and his burden. As he neared the bottom of the steps he could smell the freshly-turned earth of a nearby trench, measuring about six feet long by two and a half feet wide. He had labored in secret for many nights to dig the hole, the mouth of which, barely visible in the shadows of the smoky light, waited patiently to be filled.
The man moved reverently toward the trench all the while maintaining a firm grip on the sleeping woman. He sank to his knees at the edge of the trench. She shivered slightly in the dank cold and he hugged her closer for a brief time until her trembling stopped. Through it all she slept on.
“Soon,” he thought, “soon it will all be over.”
Gently he lowered her into the hole, using an old blanket that lay nearby to cover her. In her sleep she reached out and pulled it over her shoulders, never once surfacing from her drugged stupor. He continued to watch over her until her breathing evened out and he was assured that she was fully asleep.
Soundlessly, he reached for his spade and began to fill in the hole, one shovelful of dirt at a time. He gingerly filled in the area around her feet, being careful not to disturb her slumber. Soon, however, he warmed to the task and began to shovel the dirt randomly into the pit. Still the woman slept.
As he worked the man muttered, “Now at last I’ll be done with those who have betrayed me.” Faster and faster he shoveled the dirt into what was quickly becoming the woman’s grave. “No more of you Confederate whores and bastards to tempt me or punish me for my human frailties.”
He silently counted the number of times he lifted, scooped and flung.
and so on.
At last the sleeping woman shifted under the weight of the dirt. She tried moving her arms but they were pinned to her side. The smell of freshly turned earth enveloped her senses. Her breathing became shallow. Her eyes flew open. A meager ribbon of light was visible but soon was obliterated as a shovelful of dirt landed on her head; her attempts to shake off the heavy clumps were useless. Her nightgown and the blanket offered her little warmth and her body began to shake uncontrollably from the cold emanating from the clods of earth atop her. As the realization of what was happening crystallized in her fuzzy brain she felt something building deep within her. Seconds was all it took for the forceful scream to push past her tongue and explode out of her mouth.
“Go ahead,” the man taunted her in a gravelly voice. “No one will hear you.”
Another shovelful of dirt followed his words and the taste of cold earth lingered on her tongue. Short twists of her head momentarily cleared the dirt from her irritated eyes.
There was no way to ask this man, her husband whom she loved dearly, why he was doing this abominable thing to her. Even the slightest attempt to move her limbs proved that her petite size, which her husband had once admired, was no match for the weight of the dirt mounded atop her.
“Think!” she scolded herself mentally. Her heart was pounding furiously as she sought to keep the terror at bay. “Stop struggling and think. There must be a way out of this!”
She fought her fears and by concentrating her efforts was able to cease her futile struggles. Though her eyes were closed she listened intently and heard her husband throw down his shovel. Whatever she had done to displease him must have been appeased somehow by his erratic behavior. Perhaps all wasn’t lost yet.
In her heart she knew that her husband loved her. They had been through so much together these past few years. Upon his return home from his prolonged captivity by the Confederate Army, she had been the one to sit by his side through the tortuous nights and interminable days. He had been lost to her then, but she had never given up hope. When she had tried to question him about his time as a prisoner of war he had, until recently, given vague answers. So instead of delving too deeply and making him confront the horrors of those days, she had comforted and cared for him, soothing him when he would waken from his nightmares. Now that the war was three years in the past and their lives were getting back on track she had felt he was better. Slowly his sanity had returned. Or so it had seemed.
More recently, though, he had begun to look at her strangely and would accuse her of being one of ‘them’ – a Southern spy. He had retreated further and further into the recesses of his mind, looking at her from the corners of his eyes, watching her moves, noting when and where she would go and with whom she spoke.
If only she could talk to him now she would make him understand how much she loved him; but speech was out of the question. Any movement on her part would bring a hill of fresh soil into her mouth and nose. A sharp noise made her eyes fly open and falling clods of dirt burned her inner eyelids as she tried to focus her blurred and teary vision.
The man began pulling wooden planks over her earthy bed. She tried to engage him with her eyes, the only tool remaining at her disposal, hoping he would see her fear and end this madness. He kept his gaze averted from her face even as he pulled the final board over her head, effectively blocking any light from seeping into the cold trench. The woman closed her eyes then and courageously fought the panic welling up inside her chest. There was no way to reach out to him now. Only God could save her. She turned her heart and mind to prayer, silently begging the Lord for a miracle. As she prayed she heard a heavy thump. The man was placing rocks atop the wooden planks.
“No way you’ll escape now, you traitorous bitch,” he said.
It took the better part of an hour before the man had completed constructing a cairn over the wooden planks. When he was satisfied with his efforts he lifted the oil lamp in his grimy hands and slowly climbed the steep steps to the kitchen with nary a backward glance. It was obvious from his spritely movements that he felt better than he had for a long time. In fact, he felt so good that he continued right on up to the same bedroom that he had shared with his wife. There he stretched out on the bed and slept soundlessly and dreamlessly for the next ten hours.
The woman in the pit two floors below him had no way of knowing how much time had passed. Quite soon, however, she felt her lungs begin to constrict. Breathing was almost impossible in the deep darkness of her tomb. Her time was short. With supreme willpower she was able to move one hand from beneath the weighted blanket and was barely able to reach the wooden plank above her by stretching two fingers in a final, futile attempt.
On the outside of her grave one could hear the light scratches, like the sound of mice feet scurrying inside of a wall. Her feeble scratching continued on for a few minutes but soon ceased. In the end a dark silence enveloped the basement once more.
Once again that awful nightmare had haunted my dreams, leaving me to awaken in an irritable mood. Was I forever doomed to relive that night? Although I had been there and witnessed the entire episode, there was no way I could have intervened or prevented what happened. Now, one hundred and fifty years later, the scenario still causes me sleepless nights. In the depths of my cellar still lie the remains of Ilsa Rowan, the victim of her husband’s demented mind.
When the night is quiet I can still hear the light scratching of her fingers as she hopelessly tries to escape her grave. At least I imagine that’s what I hear. More likely it really is just a mouse scurrying in from outdoors.