Pirates of Pamlico Sound: Chapter 13
🏴 Fall 1912 * Bath.
“Dinner,” said Tommy Flanagan, “is served. You do like a good steak, right father?”
“That I do, Tommy,” said Father Patrick. “Times are good, are they not?”
Times were good, of course — especially for Tommy’s father, who had become prosperous lately in as an automotive retailer. And yet, Tommy suspected a not-so-positive purpose behind Father Patrick’s visit tonight. Still, they managed to enjoy a full, hearty meal in Tommy’s dining room before taking an after-dinner walk a half block down the street to the empty, locked shell that was once St. Sylvester’s church.
Tommy led the way with his lantern. He pulled out his key ring and, once inside, he led Father Patrick through the vestibule, across the dusty main room of the church, and to the top of a set of stairs.
“She’s still a beautiful building, father,” Tommy said, his voice echoing through the empty church. “It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been in here now that we’ve moved.”
“It’s been a well cared-for landmark for ages,” Father Patrick said.
“Considering that we have a new church now,” said Tommy, “what are your plans for this one?”
“The truth of the matter,” said Father Patrick, “is that times are too good right now. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the natural patterns of things lately.” He flipped on the electric light switch, which was a recent and quite novel addition, to illuminate the basement.
They began descending the steps as Father Patrick continued. “In April, the Titanic went down carrying 1,500 souls. This achievement of modern engineering was completely bested by what? A common piece of ice. In May, our own former neighbor Wilbur Wright met his end — one of the great scientific minds of our time who flew from the sands of Kill Devil just up the sound. And he succumbed to what? Tiny … bacteria, I’m told.”
“So, what are you saying, father? Should we, as a race, regress back to the 1800s — to that lawless and godless time of such things as bear baiting and phrenology? Do you mean to imply that we should stop the progress of the industrial revolution? Because, you have to admit: It’s amazing to finally be able to see down here!” Thomas was referring to the newly added electrical light fixture.
“I’m not against technology at all. But, it’s interesting to consider the profound effect that the natural world can bring to us even with all of these supposed comforts.” He paused for a moment. “But perhaps these are just a few ominous observations on my mind, Tommy. Nothing more.”
They arrived in the basement of the church, which was packed with centuries of bric-a-brac. “It’s just that sometimes these things strike me as strange, somewhat unnatural occurrences,” Father Patrick continued. “For example, have you heard of the shower of stones experienced by the small town of Holbrook in Arizona?”
“I read about that,” Tommy said. “They say it was a meteor, actually, that exploded in the sky over the city.”
“Either that,” Father Patrick quipped, lightening the conversation, “or Moses has returned, and this time he’s in Arizona.”
“Well, Father, the man did spend a lot of time in Egypt, right? So, maybe he simply likes the desert.”
Father Patrick laughed. “Enough of that, for now, Tommy. Listen, I wanted to talk to you about all of the junk down here.”
“It’s rather crowded,” Tommy admitted with a certain degree of guilt. As the key maintenance man for the church, it was ultimately Tommy’s responsibility to look after such areas. However, in its history, almost no one had ever complained about anything that was out of sight to the congregation.
“I just feel that it’s excessive,” Father Patrick said. “In fact, I have the feeling that we should use these prosperous times wisely, as should the entire country. Let’s start doing things right again, not become sloths like our pudgy Taft. Bring back Roosevelt, I say. He’s fit as a bull moose.”
“True, but like a moose, they shot him,” said Tommy. Tommy sometimes enjoyed egging Father Patrick on whenever the chance presented itself.
Father Patrick was quick to Taft’s defense, pounding his fist on a crate. “And the tough son of a bitch stood there and delivered his speech with the bullet still in him — in Milwaukee, no less!”
“True,” said Tommy. “But …”
“Damned right he did,” said Patrick. “You know, it’s cold up north and the poor bastard’s out there working with a bullet in him.”
“So what’s your point, man?” Tommy asked.
“My point, Mr. Flanagan, is that our parish needs to tidy up. Trim the fat, as it were.” He began walking around in the dim cellar, kicking at boxes and stirring up dirt. “Just because times are good doesn’t mean we should get lazy.”
“Well, I suppose we can tidy the place up a bit, Father. What shall I get rid of?”
“Anything and everything, in my opinion. Let’s clear the place out and then we can figure out what to do with it. We could open a school perhaps, or a medical clinic.”
Tommy’s suspicion of hearing bad news from Father Patrick — which had only heightened upon hearing the dramatic tales of natural disasters, deaths, and other phenomena — dissolved. He’d thought perhaps that the priest had intended to tear down the church or close it for good. But, prepping the place for some future enhancement would be a labor of love for Tommy.
“Leave it to me, father. I’m envisioning a large rummage sale — we can get rid of all of this stuff and make a little money in the process.”
“It’s a fine idea, Tommy,” Father Patrick said. “I’ll leave you in charge of it, then, agreed?”
“Consider it done, Father,” Tommy assured him.
The next day, Tommy returned to the church for an early start. Even on a bright day, the cellar hardly lit up beyond what anyone would call shadowy. Tommy spent hours upon hours hauling long-forgotten boxes, crates, and chests up the stairs. He found Christmas and New Year’s decorations from 1900, assorted hand tools, bolts of cloth dating back to the 1870s, dinnerware from the 1890s, a box of miscellaneous typewriter parts, stacks of old hymnals, school desks, a couple of old stoves, and loads of other general supplies and curiosities.
Toward the evening, he’d nearly cleared out the entire cellar. Only a few boxes remained, two of which were placed so high up into a far corner nook near the stone chimney, Tommy wondered whether they’ been put there deliberately to hide them from general view. There was one other large crate in that area as well. When he unpacked it, he discovered a device not seen by any church member in well over two decades — a Magic Lantern projector. He remembered seeing it once or twice in his mid twenties. Basically, this was a device that used lamp light to project images onto a flat surface.
Out of curiosity, he decided to see if the device still worked well. He lit the small oil lamp and inserted it into the chamber before switching off the electric light. He placed the glass slide into the holder and the image soon came into focus projected onto the dirty wall opposite him. The illuminated scene depicted an old bearded wizard in a yellow and burgundy robe casting a spell over a fiery cauldron spewing blue flame and billowing thick black smoke. Strange objects hung over the wizards head — an illuminated mobile featuring the forms of an alligator, a swordfish, and a turtle. There was a skeleton in the background, a black cat on the old man’s shoulder, and a monkey at his feet pawing a human skull. Odd items surrounded the man — maps, books of incantations, globes, telescopes and astrolabes. There were even Egyptian hieroglyphics and anatomical sketches on the walls reminiscent of Leonardo DaVinci’s famous drawings.
At first, the scene amused him. It wasn’t a slide he remembered ever seeing before, and he’d forgotten how spectacularly detailed many of these slides had been. While he was tempted to continue with the slideshow, he decided to finish up his work. As the scene flickered slightly on the wall, a rather eerie feeling descended upon Tommy. He convinced himself that the environment he’d created for himself — a graphic scene depicting sorcery, illuminated by candle light, during a cool fall night, alone, in the basement of a church — was a bit too unsettling for his taste. He quickly turned on the electric light and blew out the lamp.
As the bright incandescent light filled the room once again, he briefly shook off the uneasy feeling he’d built up. This is just nonsense, he told himself. The slide he’d just seen called to mind the many advertisements he’d seen recently and over the past few years for magicians such as Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, and Harry Houdini. In many of these ads and posters, the magicians are depicted with small red devils surrounding them, whispering the secrets of the supernatural world directly into their ears.
The remaining two items sat wedged high up into a corner wall near the stone chimney. He looked at them, mentally figuring out whether he could get them both, along with the box containing the Magic Lantern, upstairs in just one trip. He didn’t believe he could; deep inside, he realized that he could not shake the feeling of fear he’d developed. He thought perhaps he could manage at least one of the remaining two items, though. The wooden chest seemed too heavy, so he decided to take the thinner item wrapped in cloth.
As he stood alone in the far corner, reaching up into the shadows for the thin package, he became quite overcome with a feeling of dread. He was uncomfortable with the idea of being underground, facing a stone wall in a corner like that, as though anything could be happening behind him without his knowledge — Houdini and Kellar’s red little imps secretly scampering in and out of the shadows while he wasn’t looking. Once he got hold of the package, he quickly grabbed the Magic Lantern box and left the basement quickly, worrying that something might grab at his ankles as he rushed up the steps.
Tommy’s rational side felt almost embarrassed to be thinking this way. Once he’d returned to the safety of his family home, he felt a bit silly to have ever thought those things. But, there was no denying the fact that he’d felt a presence in that basement — even if the whole episode could easily be explained away as a simply an emotional manifestation of some unknown and probably irrational latent fears.
In a few days, Tommy returned to the church — in the bright daytime, and only on he main floor — to sort through what looked like a lifetime’s accumulation of various jetsam found washed up from the sound. He approached the job in the exact reverse order in which he’d brought everything upstairs, which meant the thin package he’d rescued from the furthest depths of the cellar would be his first task. As he picked it up, he noted that a paper was clipped to the outside. It read, “Property of Delbert Tyson Construction Company, 1825.” Perhaps it’s blue prints or something, Tommy thought.
He was pleasantly surprised to find a beautifully preserved oil painting of a woman and a child standing on a beach. It was signed “Grellier” along the bottom right. This, he thought, will make a nice addition to the sale. Perhaps it will bring one or two dollars.
On to the next item. All day long he sorted and arranged the items into categories — tools on this pew, kitchen items on that pew, miscellaneous throughout. This would be an impressive and lucrative sale, he thought.
Father Patrick stopped in at one point to check on Tommy’s progress. “I see you’re doing well, Tommy.”
“It’s been quite a day, Father. As you can see, we were long overdue for this.”
“Anything particularly valuable?”
“Well, aside from the treasure chest of pirate gold I took home,” he joked, “I’d say you’re looking at a rather ordinary selection of paraphernalia and equipment. But feel free to look around. See if anything catches your eye.”
Father Patrick milled about for twenty minutes or so, examining a few items and helping Tommy arrange a few things as well. Eventually, he happened across the painting.
“Good Lord, Tommy,” he said, picking up the painting for a closer look. “Where did you find this?”
“Oh, that. It was wrapped up and wedged up in the joists, near the chimney.”
Father Patrick held the bottom right corner up closer to his eyes and squinted. “This says ‘Grellier’ at the bottom. You don’t suppose that’s Hervé Grellier?”
Tommy shrugged. “No idea, padre. I never heard the name.”
“He was a Huguenot minister of the original colony — and also known as a fairly prolific self-taught artist during his productive period. You can see his work all around the sound, hanging in various historical museums and churches. As a matter of fact, you can see the man himself, if you like. There’s a self-portrait by him hanging just down the road in his original church.”
“You don’t say. When was his productive period, exactly?” Tommy asked.
Father Patrick put the painting back down and thought. “As memory serves, I’d say 1690s through 1716.”
“You’re a regular Encyclopedia Britannica,” Tommy said, laughing. But, then he considered Father Patrick’s statement a little closer. “I understand you’re saying 1690s as an estimate, but the year 1716 sounds a little too exact to be a guess.”
“Well, he’s a historical religious figure here in Bath, so it’s rather within my line of work to know about him,” Father Patrick explained. “I don’t know much about the man’s origins — when he settled here and so forth. But, according to legend, the man met an untimely end in the year 1716.”
“An untimely end?”
“No one really knows, Tommy. Some believed he crossed paths with the infamous Blackbeard. Some say he fled the colony. And still others had wilder ideas. One account even claimed the man was killed by a witch. But one thing’s for sure …”
“What’s that?” Tommy asked.
“He suddenly disappeared from Bath for good in 1716.”
Instantly, Tommy thought back to a few nights ago — how he’d been overcome with fear after viewing the sorcery slide in the basement, and how he’d decided to leave that wooden chest stuffed up near the floor joist next to the chimney. He mentally repeated some of the words Father Patrick had spoken just now: One thing’s for sure. He then added his own ending to this: One thing’s for sure — I’m keeping my mouth shut about the wooden chest in the basement.
“Look, Tommy, can you put this painting aside for me?”
“Sure,” Tommy said. “How come?”
“I know an art dealer here in town who collects such antiquities — Bernie Nicholl. The guy specializes in original memorabilia from the local colonies — and we’ll bring in a lot more money for the church from Bernie than we will from some random person at the rummage sale.”
“I see,” Tommy said, not wanting to look at the thing much longer. “That sounds like a good idea then.”
“Or, I could take it along to him now, actually,” suggested Father Patrick. “Would you mind?”
Tommy spoke up enthusiastically, with no hesitation. “That is a great idea. I think you should get that thing out of here as quickly as possible.”
Father Patrick laughed. “Now, Tommy, I hope I haven’t scared you with this talk of mysterious disappearances and witchcraft.”
“Well …” Tommy admitted, humbly.
“Don’t be silly, man. I’m a priest, after all — and it doesn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother you. After all, there aren’t really any such things as witches.”
“Of course not,” Tommy agreed.
“Devils, demons, spirits — sure,” he said. “But not witches.”
“I get the point, Father,” Tommy said.
“Well then, I’ll be leaving you to your sale. You’re doing a fine job, Tommy, as always.” Father Patrick took the painting and headed out the door.
The sale took place that weekend. All things considered, it was a rousing success. The rummage sale alone brought in a considerable sum and, quite surprisingly, the painting had been authenticated by Father Patrick’s collector friend — who offered the priest an amount roughly ten times their total take at the rummage sale.
“And, to think,” Tommy remarked later, “I’d have sold that painting to anyone for a dollar.”
☠️ 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).