Pirates of Pamlico Sound: Chapter 11

🏴 1825 * Bath.

The whole back room will be fundamentally changed, then?” asked Sister Robertson. “This will be the largest change this church has seen since the Protestants left the building.”

“I think it has to be done, though, ma’am,” said Delbert, gruffly. “You see, the problem is structural in nature.” He then pointed to the wall separating the front of the church from the back room. “This wall has to come down, and then we’ll fix the damage, and then we’ll put it back up good as new along with your addition on the back.”

Sister Robertson accepted Delbert’s advice on the matter. Delbert Tyson had proven himself the most qualified carpenter in Beaufort County. He’d carved out a niche for himself in the area of liturgical construction and renovation. All denominations sought out his singular expertise. He’d even overseen some extremely delicate and confidential renovations at St. Thomas where some original colony settlers slain by the Tuscarora lay buried below the church. Jobs like that fueled his natural superstitious tendencies.

As in all of his jobs, Delbert’s priority was in preserving the spirit of the structure under his care. If a building needed brick replacements, he’d find bricks to match the originals. If a new pew was required, he’d build it to match the existing ones. If new stone was needed, he’d scavenge the materials locally, just as the settlers had done. In fact, he’d done such a fine job of this over his career that he’d fooled himself a few times, having returned to a building many years after he’d been there and mistaking his earlier repair work for the original structure.

Occasionally, he’d come across items that had been unseen for perhaps a century — books and papers that had been stuffed into walls as insulation, old apothecary bottles that had been tossed into rafters, and the occasional small jug of whiskey or rum left in some cranny compliments of a previous carpenter. These items he considered good fortune. In return for this, he paid attention to sustaining the good fortune for the next person, often leaving little surprises behind, hidden within the walls.

One of the first items to go during Sister Robertson’s project was a water damaged deacon’s bench that was built-into a nook near a western window at the rear of the church. Decades of rain pounding that side of the building had wreaked havoc in certain parts of the structure. The bench itself, according to Sister Robertson, had been there for ages; it was known to have been installed in 1715 by the church’s original minister. Delbert knew this man to be Hervé Grellier, according to a memorial plaque hanging below a framed self-portrait in the church.

After moving the cushions from the bench top, Delbert noticed that the bench had a heavy lid that appeared to be hinged at the back. Across the front of the bench, he noticed quite a number of nails holding the lid closed.

Delbert grabbed a foot-long piece of scrap wood and wedged it below the lip of the bench lid on the far left side. He pounded the wood numerous times, slowly prying the lid open. He repeated this process again and again, moving six inches or so to the right each time until he’d reached the far right side of the bench. Once he’d managed to open a uniform gap over the length of the bench lid, he dropped the extra piece of wood and began to pound the lid open directly, swinging upward rather violently with his hammer all along the bench lid. The heavy wood gave way slowly and, when it finally broke free, the lid jumped open and then fell down again under its own weight.

Before dealing with the inner portion of the bench, Delbert decided to remove and save any of the old nails that he could. He counted the nail points. A total of fourteen stuck out from the heavy wooden lid, which made the bench resemble a monster with razor-sharp teeth. As he dealt with this hazard by removing the nails one by one, Delbert became somewhat puzzled at the number of nails that had been used for this purpose. It seemed like such a curious and needless waste when, after all, the simple force of gravity would accomplish largely the same general goal of keeping the lid closed.

In addition, he knew well that the original colonists were not at all wasteful — and certainly not with things as valuable as nails, which after all had to be hand-forged during those days. In Delbert’s case, he’d long had access to manufactured nails, but he’d learned much from his father (also a carpenter by trade) about the history of such things. “Before these machine-cut nails came along,” his father had once told him, “nails were a valuable commodity. When we wanted to demolish a building, we used to burn the damn thing down so that we’d be able to sift through the ashes and reclaim the nails.”

Considering this, Delbert’s superstitious nature began to suspect something unusual about the contents of this deacon’s bench. When he began his attempt to prop the bench lid fully open, he realized that no one had done so for more than a century. The rust-worn hinges creaked and snapped as he raised it slightly past the forty-five degree mark. Even though he had no intention of saving or restoring the bench — he’d just pounded the living daylights out of it, after all — he made a great effort to firmly catch hold of the lid before it broke off completely.

When he’d got a firm grip on the lid, it took only a mild twist and pull to separate it from the bench. He set this aside and, with a bit of hesitation, reached into the storage space beneath the lid.

He first pulled out a package covered in cloth. He unwrapped it and found a spectacularly preserved oil painting of a woman and a child standing on a sunlit beach. He immediately recognized the signature on the lower right corner: Grellier. The haunting expression of the small child made him slightly uncomfortable. He thought it best to cover the painting once again.

The chest was next. He struggled a bit to remove the awkward item, but managed to free it from its former home after a minute or two. He looked over his shoulder to make sure Sister Robertson was out of sight. It was not his intention to steal from the church; if there was something of value inside, he fully intended to share his discovery. But, finding a small box after seeing a painting of a little girl filled him with an eerie sensation. If the most favorable set of contents could be imagined to be a box of gold (although, judging from the weight, this wasn’t likely), then what could possibly be inside that would constitute the least favorable discovery?

Bones, he thought. What if it’s the bones or the ashes of a child? His superstitious tendencies strongly disliked this proposition. What would the supernatural consequences be for him, he wondered, if he were to open the box and discover such an abomination? And, he certainly wouldn’t want Sister Robertson witnessing such a thing.

Again, he looked around. With no one around, he decided to take a look. He cracked the lid open slowly. Inside, he saw something wrapped in light-colored muslin. He cautiously lifted one end of the cloth and slowly revealed the large black crow with an arrow in its chest. A panic enveloped him. This was a bad omen — an extremely bad sign, possibly even worse than finding the bones he’d imagined.

He stood up and stepped back, pacing back and forth wondering what to do next. He nervously put his right hand into his pocket and ran his fingers over the cool iron nails he’d just pulled from the deacon’s bench. In an instant, he knew what needed to be done. He reached for his hammer, knelt next to the sea chest, pulled three of the nails from his pocket, and sealed the sea chest firmly.

This, he thought, would not sit well with Sister Robertson. She was an older, quite peaceful woman of god; she should be spared from dealing with something so uncomfortable. In fact, he felt that a man such as himself — who enjoyed uncommon accessibility to the basements, back rooms, and catacombs of so many churches — could surely find a new home for these items for perhaps the next hundred years.

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☠️ Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog called “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He’s also contributes to various Medium.com publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. “Chapter number” background photo atop piece is adapted from “Light Reading” by Martin (Flickr, Creative Commons).