Eve Fisher

John Franklin came to Laskin, South Dakota, researching landscapes and myths. That sounded a little funny to everyone, so it drew quite a crowd for his talk at the library:
“There are places on this earth that set you dreaming. The little stand of cottonwoods around a pool, cupped by rolling hills of grass, the perfect shelter, the perfect place to rest and look into the waters for as long as your soul can take it. The tumble of stones that beg your eye to make it into a pattern, a place of meaning, of importance. The tangle of briars and rocks, dark under a red dome, looking like eye sockets from a distance and no more friendly close up. The flatland that goes on too long for safety of body or mind…” He paused and brought up a new powerpoint slide.
“I’ve found every kind here. There’s Dark Hollow.” Everyone nodded. “Some people have told me it’s a dangerous place to be, others that its dangers stem from the heart and mind and soul. Now that’s very interesting, because that is exactly what the journey of the hero says about almost all landscapes. Everything depends on the purity of the person who journeys through it. Dark Hollow is a testing ground, apparently, and everyone here knows it, in one way or another.”
He clicked on the next slide and everyone gasped at the shattered farmhouse. “This, of course, is the Heirigs farm, where mass murderer Jonas Heirigs tortured, killed, and buried at least five people. And when his murders were finally discovered, he anticipated his arrest by blowing up his place, himself in it.” He glanced over at Sheriff Hanson. “Did they ever find his body?”
“Did they prove conclusively that it was his?”
“The DNA said yes. It was him.”
“I’m very relieved to hear that.” Nervous laughter rippled through the seats. “Now that happened two years ago. And I took these photos just last week. It’s good farmland, but I notice that nobody has cleaned it up or rebuilt since.”
“There was a lot of digging,” Hanson said shortly.
“And there’s a sense of evil, too. Correct?” People shifted in their chairs. “Did anyone claim it as their inheritance?” Hanson shook his head. “Who here would be willing – if the land is available – to take and use the Heirigs property on the condition that they rebuild the house and live out there?” More shifting. Franklin nodded. “Wise. Humans leave their footprints on everything they touch – they’ve proved that, by the way. We leave our DNA everywhere we go, on everything we touch. And that DNA, I’m told, changes as we change, even if we never see or touch that thing or place again. So there’s bound to be something left of Jonas Heirigs on the Heirigs property. Still. Unless it gets burned to the ground. That may be –” He clicked on the next slide, and up came an engraving of a woman being burned at the stake – “why they burned witches and other heretics. So that nothing would be left. An ignorant, reprehensible practice. But wiser than they knew as far as taking care of any traces of the person.”
The next few powerpoints were all engravings of witches. Then came a picture of crop circles.
“That’s my land!” Lyle Pederson said proudly.
“Yes. Mr. Pederson’s farm, with crop circles. Caused by what? Strange vortexes of wind?”
“There was a British special, showed a couple of guys claiming they did it with a board and some rope,” Joe Hegdahl commented.
“I saw that. All I can say is they were apparently very dedicated to what was a lot of hard work over a vast section of England.” Everyone laughed. “Wind? Aliens? Natural phenomenon?”
“The Flats are a funny place,” Matt Stark said. “Wind howls through like a freight train with nothing to stop it. Strange things happen. Everybody remembers ten years back, a tornado dropped out of a clear sky and whipped through the Flats like a knife through butter. No other clouds, no storms, just God’s finger coming out of nowhere to stir the pot.”
“That was when Ken Olson pulled up stakes and quit,” Joe replied.
“Well, the tornado dumped his barn on top of his silo,” Harold Stark spoke up. “He took it as a sign from God.”
“Or maybe the aliens just didn’t like him,” Lyle said. “I mean, they fly over all the time, I see the lights. But they fly over, and go to Ken Olson’s place. Maybe he tried to drive them away.”
Everyone groaned.
“I think we’re getting away from the topic,” Franklin interjected. “How many of you feel comfortable on the Flats? Raise your hands.” Most people did so. “Does that include at night?” Some hands went down. “I ask because when I’ve asked directions to Huron, nobody sends me over 14. Everyone’s sent me the long way. Why not the Flats?” All the hands were down. “There are places that make us uncomfortable. The question is, why? And is it place, or is it time?” Franklin chatted on for a few more minutes, and then wrapped up his talk to applause.
“What did you mean about the time?” Harold Stark asked over the standard coffee and cookies.
“Well, that’s another aspect of my research,” Franklin said. “I’m curious about how the impact of current events on the human psyche plays out in our sense of place. In other words, in times of extreme stress and change, do feelings of foreboding about places increase? For example, historically speaking, the worst time to be a witch wasn't in the so-called Dark Ages, or even the Middle Ages. The worst time to be a witch was from fourteen hundred to a little after seventeen hundred, i.e., during the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the first Scientific Revolution. It’s as if all that new knowledge, new ideas, new applications, new procedures, new stuff, scared everyone so much that it turned the whole world dark in a way it hadn’t been before. The dark side of the moon. The next thing they knew, they were killing people just to prove that everything was the way it always had been, world without end. Amen.”
“So are you saying Jonas Heirigs killed people because he was stressed out by modern times?”
“No. I think it was because he was evil. Don’t you?”
“Well, of course he was.”
“Exactly. But, if you heard of someone –”
Matt stumped up to them and said, “Harold. Come on. I gotta get home and let my dog out.”
“Of course.” Harold searched for a closing, and finally came up with “A very interesting talk.”
“Thank you.”
Two days later, Franklin was eating peach pie at the Laskin Café when Sheriff Hanson came in and sat down across
from him.
“Thought you might want to know, someone burned down what’s left of the Heirigs farmhouse last night. I’m not surprised, after that talk you gave about his DNA being left everywhere.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that about burning it.”
“Ah, it’s not really your fault. Sooner or later…” Hanson waved at Ella, who brought him a cup of coffee. “A piece of that pie, too. No, it was bound to happen. I figure it was the Davison boys. They like to burn things down or blow them up.” He shook his head. “I’ve caught them a few times, but this time I’m not even going to try to nail them. I’m just as happy to see the old wreck gone. Too many bad memories. Too much bad stuff. What he did to that poor girl, Valerie… That was the worst. Some people wondered why his wife didn’t turn him in. If she was in on it. Maybe she was. Or maybe she was just scared. Out there all alone with that monster in the middle of nowhere…”
“On the Flats...”
“Oh, you can’t blame the Flats for everything. Lyle’s place is on the Flats, too.”
“On the other side, correct?”
“Yep. His farm butts up against Dark Hollow. And Lyle’s all right. He’s just a crackpot who believes in aliens.”
“What happened to Heirigs’ wife?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“By the way, last night you mentioned DNA, but no dental records. Why?”
“Because,” Hanson’s mouth twisted, “the explosion took his head off.”
Franklin nodded. “Did he leave any explanation behind?”
“There were some papers in a metal box. Bunch of gobbledy-gook if you ask me.”
“Is there any way I can read them?”
“Because. There might be something about the place. I’d like to know, if the place worked on him, or him on the place.”
“What the hell is your degree in, anyway?”
“I have a Masters in History of Mythology and a Doctorate in Philosophy. My dissertation was on the symbiotic effects of place upon the human psyche as evidenced in alien abduction histories.”
Hanson sat and blinked for a moment. Then he said, “The Clerk of Court has them in the archives. Nobody else wanted them. Linda Thompson. She’ll help you.”
Linda Thompson wore gloves as she handed over the battered tin box to him. He looked from her hands to her face. She said defiantly, “I heard your talk about DNA. I’m not taking any chances.”
He nodded and pulled out a pair of latex gloves. “Neither am I.”
“You can use the bailiff’s desk.”
“Mind if I photograph the papers?”
“Not at all.”
The box held only half a dozen scraps of paper, all of them odd bits, torn from here or there, some lined, some not, all covered in penciled scribbles and symbols. He photographed, reading as he went. The words reeked of insanity:
“soul-killing witches that deform the body…”
“tentacled cold-membered dark, bubbling black stabbing tails…”
“the pestilence walks in darkness; the destruction wastes at noon; there is no refuge from the burning, the branding, the black fire…”
“If ever there were Witches, Men & Women in Covenant with the Devil, HERE ARE MULTITUDES!”
He raised his head and asked, “Have you read any of these?”
“I took a look at the top one and put it back.”
“Does it make any sense to you? ‘Black tongues black tails black hairy breath of black stabbing, black dark whistle…’”
“Of course it doesn’t make sense. He was crazy.” Franklin nodded. “But… it’s always hard to believe that someone is that crazy, you know? He talked to his co-workers down at the meat-packing plant about the devil and aliens and dark angels and death… but they just ignored it. Everyone did. It was easier.”
“Did he ever claim to have met the devil? Or be abducted by aliens?”
“Not that I know of. But then, I never talked to him. I never even saw him. I just heard about him. He never came to town in all the time that I’ve been here. And there was no trial, because he died.”
“Mm. Well, it doesn’t really matter.” He picked up one sheet and looked it over again. “This is just gibberish. ‘Ululate rougous polipous, yith ygg ythogtha tulushugggua…’” He paused. “Wait a second, that’s not gibberish. That’s Lovecraft.”
“You’re right,” Linda said.
“You’ve read him?”
“Way too much when I was a teenager.” She shivered slightly. “‘The Whisperer in Darkness.’”
“Ah, yes. The Old Ones. The Ancient Ones. Alien dieties.” He picked up a scrap of paper - “Black dark whistle…’ Ythogtha. Barking mad. Do you think he saw one?”
“There’s no such thing,” Linda said, a little too strongly.
“Of course not. But he thought he was in contact with something. Just like Lyle Pederson. Only Pederson is looking for, believes in, their beneficence. While Heirigs looked for, fed off of, malevolence. Which leads to the question, is it the mind or the place, and which feeds off the other? And what is feeding what?” An apprehensive silence came from Linda. “Never mind. I’m told that I have a disturbed imagination.” He smiled, but she didn’t smile back.
“You want to what?” Sheriff Hanson asked.
“I’d like to go out and look at what’s left of the farmhouse.”
“Why? Looking for… emanations?”
“No. I already know it’s going to be bad. I want to see if there’s a tunnel. A crack. Something. Something hidden, that no one’s seen.” Franklin pulled out his laptop, and brought up a map. “Look. Here’s the Flats. Pederson’s place is over on the west side, with the rock formation that makes Dark Hollow running along the south side. Heirigs’ was on the east side of the Flats, with another outcropping of rock – do you see? The Flats is actually a filled in fissure between two major rock formations that split eons ago… Both places emanate a disturbance. Dark Hollow, relatively benign –” Hanson’s nod was brief. “And this…” He pulled up a picture on his laptop.
“Red Dome,” Hanson said. Under Franklin’s steady gaze, Hanson added, embarrassed, “It used to be called Injun Head until some folks got up in arms about it.”
Franklin nodded, but didn’t ask why it had been called a head when it looked just like a skull, even down to the eye sockets of dark brush. “Are those caves?” he asked, pointing to them.
“No. Just brush.”
“You know anyone who knows that area, what’s there? Who’d be willing to go with me?”
“Tom Olson. He’s a rock climber. Grew up not far from there, but on the other side of the Vermillion Hills.”
“How do I get in touch with him?”
“Come with me to the Norseman’s tonight, I’ll introduce you.”
Two days later, Franklin, Tom Olson, and Sheriff Hanson gathered at the Heirigs’ farm. The grass crackled black underfoot, the road was dust. The shattered ruins of the house were now black ash, floating darkly in the sunshine with every puff of wind. The trees leaned in, burned clean of leaves. What had been the small basement was now a pit of charcoal and blackened rubble.
“You’d need to a few men to dig that out,” Hanson said with a tone of relief.
“It’ll be easier to find what I’m looking for over at the Red Dome rock formation,” Franklin replied.
“You mean Injun Head?” Tom asked.
“I mean the place that looks like a skull,” Franklin explained.
Tom and Hanson glanced at each other, and the three started hiking.
“There’s what’s almost a slot canyon in the back side of it,” Tom said after a while. He was wearing a harness, rope and other climbing equipment. “Really weird, for this part of the country. You can either go down the lip of the thing using rope, or you can slide down and then walk it up to a certain point. But only so far. If you want to get to the true heart of it, you’ve got to use rope.”
“I assume you’ve done it?” Franklin asked.
“Only once.”
“What happened?”
Tom winced. “Storm came up. Out of nowhere. Me and Pete, my little brother, we had to scramble to get out. He twisted his ankle, and I damn near lost him on the end of the rope. That was a hell of a storm… Worst time of my life.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m back out here again.”
“Clear today,” Hanson said.
“Just keep an eye out for clouds. They come up quick out here.”
The formation loomed above them, the massive boulders, slick, stained deep dark red, streaked as if with black oil.
“We go up over here if you want to go down into the canyon,” Tom said.
“No,” Franklin replied. He pointed to the eye sockets. “Look at the ground.”
“Holy shit,” Sheriff Hanson muttered. The dirt, dried to dust, showed signs of something heavy being dragged towards and into the brush. Hanson undid his holster clasp, put his hand on his gun, and whispered, “Tom, yank on that big branch there.”
Tom swallowed hard and reached. As he pulled, the brush exploded out in a rain of thorns, and everyone jumped back, and back again as a bellow roared out at them, echoed around them. Something heaved out and everyone stumbled back, Tom slipping, Franklin helping him back up – something blackened and twisted, something that lurched because it could not walk, wallowed because it had melted into itself… The three men scrambled further back, horrified, as they watched it heave its collapsed and sagging matter towards them… And the worst of all is that somehow it was screaming. Agonized screams reverberated off the stained red rocks, so deafening, so maddening, that Hanson only realized he’d fired his gun when the thing collapsed in black silence.
“God in heaven, what the hell was it?” Tom asked.
Hanson looked down at his gun, then went over to it and looked, gingerly, as if not knowing where to begin. It was human, but…
“I believe that it’s Jonas Heirigs,” Franklin said.
Hanson had rolled the body over, and was looking sick. “It can’t be.”
Franklin soaked his kerchief with water from his canteen and handed it to Hanson. “For his face.”
Hanson wiped the face. Under the dirt, smoke, and grime, he recognized a scarred Jonas Heirigs. “Jesus.” He began looking down the body. The whole right side had been terribly injured. “The explosion must have done it,” he said. “Back when he blew up his place. There’s burns, but they’re healed. Sort of.” He looked up at Franklin and asked, “How did you know it was Jonas?”
“Because I knew his brother, Gunnar. He was one of my colleagues. He was Jonas’ twin brother, which is why the body you found and tested for DNA matched Jonas’. But it wasn’t his. I know he sent Gunnar a letter, asked him to come out and help him. Then Jason killed him, set the explosion, and hid out here. With the Old Ones.”
“What the hell are the Old Ones?” Hanson asked.
“H. P. Lovecraft. ‘At the Mountains of Madness.’” Franklin looked around at the dark slick rocks. “Close enough.”
“I knew that Gunnar went off to help his brother,” Franklin explained later at the Norseman’s Bar. “They’d been estranged, and Gunnar had told me he’d been worried about his brother’s mental health for a while. But I didn’t know what happened next until I came out here. We were overseas, doing research in Ardeal, Romania. He left, I kept working. I didn’t know where his brother lived. The only reason I came out here at all was because Gunnar had told me about Dark Hollow, Crow Woman and Dark That Rides, and I thought I’d look into it on my vacation.”
“So… are you going to research the Heirigs formation now?” Linda asked.
Franklin, Hanson, and Tom Olson exchanged swift glances. Heirigs’ strangely mutilated body; the bunker carved into the rock, loaded with canned goods; everything filthy and cobwebbed except where that damaged flesh had dragged itself to feed and sleep; the manic scrawls over the walls; the filth everywhere; the dark ominous crack in the back with the wind whistling through it.
“Probably not.”
There had been a tunnel, darkly claustrophobic. “I’m not going down there without lights,” Tom had said, and no one had contradicted him. So far no further mention had been made of it.
Franklin turned to Sheriff Hanson, “What will happen to the property?”
“It’ll rot. Probably go up for auction. Back taxes, if nothing else. Why, you interested?”
Franklin took a sip of his beer. “No. But… You know, in 146 BC the Romans conquered the Carthage for the last time. Legend has it that after they sold every inhabitant into slavery, they tore the city down to the ground, and then sowed the ground with salt, so that nothing would ever grow there again. I don’t think that would be a bad idea for the Heirigs place.” Hanson looked puzzled, apprehensive... “Unless you know someone who’d want to buy it.”
“Not me,” Tom said.
“Nor me,” Linda added.
Tom looked at the Davison boys across the way, talking intently over their beer. “They’re up to something.”
“Well,” said Hanson, “since they’re the ones who burned the Heirigs place to the ground, they’ll probably try to blow it up this time. Like the way they blew up TJ’s pig farm a while back.”
“Mm. I don’t like that,” Franklin said. Everyone looked at him. “Better to fill it in with cement, don’t you think? The bunker. The tunnel. Maybe even that basement. Let the dark stay put. I don’t think I’d –” He gestured with his hands, outward, “blow it up.”
After a pause, Sheriff Hanson said, “I’m sure they’ll be able to find a cement mixer somewhere.” He got up and walked over to the Davisons.