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       Coffins, p.27

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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  I took Jebediah’s hand in my own and helped him mount the stairs, saying, “Here, friend, I am with you,” and so upward we struggled, as if eager to face our doom.

  We were halfway to the next landing when the walls began to drum. Each boom! loud enough to make us jump. I stumbled, bumping my shoulder against the wall, and felt an insistent, pulsing rhythm that made my head whirl and my mouth go dry. A crazy phrase began to run through my mind: the drums are gods, the gods are drums, the drums are gods, the gods are drums as if the drumming itself was capable of inducing insanity by altering the rhythms of the mind.

  the drums are gods, the gods are drums, the drums are gods, the gods are drums

  “Don’t listen!” I cautioned Jeb. “Don’t touch the walls!”

  Whereupon the drumming increased in volume and intensity, until the air itself began to pound. The lamp’s flame jumped with each beat, and that in turn made the shadows twitch with the repeating rhythm. This was the sound of madness. It must have been, because I knew what the drums were saying.

  the drums are gods, the gods are drums, the drums are gods, the gods are drums chanting, beating, pulsing into the bone marrow.

  “Davis!” Jeb whispered hoarsely. “The runner!”

  The steps were covered with a rug or runner tacked to each tread. Blood oozed from under the runner, squishy and sticky under my boots. Poor Jeb was in agony, trying to scuff the blood away, but only smearing more upon his twisted little feet. “Ahhh!” he cried in panic. “Get it off me! Off! Off!”

  Nathaniel cried out again, and that brought my friend to his senses. We hurried up the stairwell, drawn by the scream, trying to ignore the hideous sensation of stepping on the blood-swollen rug, unable to sustain our shudders of revulsion. And all the while the lamp flickered in rhythm, the shadows twitched, the walls pulsed, the air condensed, expanded, condensed as the drums kept chanting the drums are gods, the gods are drums, the drums are gods, the gods are drums in strings of repeating rhythms that entwined, overlapped, writhed like the black snake tongue that had protruded from Lucy’s blood-red lips the drums are gods, the gods are drums, the drums are gods, the gods are drums the entire structure of the tower booming, shaking, booming with the drums; the horrible, maddening drums.

  We found Nathaniel on the last landing before the top, his screams still echoing as we made the turn. Which made no sense, as he was sprawled insensible on the floor, with a gash above his left eye that had been bleeding for several minutes, at the very least. I helped him sit up and pressed a hankie to the wound, which did not appear to be serious. “Tell them to stop,” he implored me. And when I asked “who,” he said, “The awful drums.”

  the drums are gods, the gods are drums, the drums are gods, the gods are drums on and on, never ceasing, always changing, weaving and unweaving, writhing and doubling back upon itself.

  “Nathaniel! Look at me!” I said, holding the lamp, so I could see that his eyes still functioned, the lack being a sure sign of concussion or worse. “What happened?”

  He shrugged, muttering, “I don’t know. Something came out of the dark, just as the drumming started. That’s all I remember.”

  “So it wasn’t you screaming for help?”

  Nathaniel shook his head.

  “But I recognized your voice,” said Jeb.

  “Father called out, not me. We must go to him,” and then to me. “We must!”

  I knew then that the Captain could not be left behind, even if he put us in peril. “Trust nothing,” I warned them. “We must stick together. We will link hands, find the Captain, and then all of us will leave together, is that agreed? Nathaniel?”

  “Agreed.”

  We each took one of Jebediah’s hands and, holding our lamps aloft, advanced to the top of the stairwell, as the treads pulsed and bled beneath us the drums are gods, the gods are drums, the drums are gods, the gods are drums, never ceasing.

  The Captain’s door was wide open, which I did not take as a good sign. We stepped through the door and all at once the drumming ceased and the blessed silence nearly made me weep with gratitude. Indeed, it was unnaturally peaceful within Captain Coffin’s solitary chamber, so much so that I at first assumed he had fled the place, or left by some other means of egress.

  Nathaniel and I raised our lamps with considerable trepidation, only to discover that the old man was sound asleep on his couch. The coon cat lay curled on his chest, wide-eyed as he protected his master. “Scat,” said Nathaniel, but the great beast took offense and rose up, perched on its bandaged hindquarters, ready to spar.

  The disturbance awakened Cash Coffin, and the old man sat up groggily, stroking the cat that clung to his lap. “Nate? Jeb? What has happened?” he asked, as if expecting the worst.

  His two sons assured him that all was as well as could be expected, considering, but that he must come with us, down out of the tower, before the drumming resumed and tore the walls to pieces. “Drumming?” he said. “What drumming?”

  “You must have heard, or felt it, even in your sleep,” I said.

  “I know what drums are, sir, and I heard none.”

  A strange thought struck me, and I went back through the doorway. Sure enough the drums are gods, the gods are drums, the drums are gods, the gods are drums and then once again the blessed silence as I returned to the sanctuary of the Captain’s chamber.

  “Father, did you not call for help?” Jeb asked him.

  “I did not.”

  “We’ve been tricked,” I said. “It wants you here. It wants the sons together with the father.”

  “What should we do?” Nathaniel asked, with real fear in his voice.

  “Leave at once,” I said. “Captain Coffin, if you wish to join us, please come along. But I believe Nathaniel and Jeb are in great danger if they stay.”

  The old man was shaking his head even before I got the words out. “It waits for me below,” he said. “If I leave this room, I won’t survive the hour.”

  Nathaniel was now gazing at me with palpable distrust. “Why does the doctor want us to leave, hey? Think on that, Jebediah. Wants us to leave the safety of Father’s chamber. Why’s he want us out there with the drums?”

  Jebediah looked even more stricken, and begged his brother not to distrust me, after all I’d done for all concerned. In response Nathaniel rose to his full height and shoved his lamp nearer to my face, as if checking for signs of deception. “Didn’t do nothing for Sarah, did he, until it was too late, and then what he saved was half a child, not my wife.”

  “What are you saying, Nate?”

  “Laid his hands upon her, he did. Maybe that’s what made her simple, not the drowning. When did drowning ever make a person simple, hey? Drown and you die. There’s never an in-between, except when Dr. Bentwood lays his hands upon you.”

  The physician in me was wondering if the blow on the head had precipitated Nathaniel’s irrational rage—the effect was not uncommon—but the more sensible man knew enough to draw back, out of range of his powerful fists.

  “Answer me, Doctor,” he demanded, advancing. “Tell us your true name. Is it Bentwood? Emerson? Or is it some other impersonation? More like Beelzebub!”

  I was at the point of making a stand, and having to defend myself, when the floor of the tower shuddered violently beneath us, and the whole structure began to sway perilously, as if forced by a strong wind—and yet there was no wind.

  “It comes!” cried Captain Coffin.

  While the others clung to whatever they could grab hold of, I crawled to the doorway and pulled myself through the opening, out into the stairwell. The terrible noise of the drums was nearly overpowered by the cracking and splitting of timbers. Spikes and nails wrenched free with shrieks that were nearly human. Treads exploded from the stairs as the entire framework of the tower twisted under the pressure of imminent collapse.

  We must get out or be crushed. There was no longer any need to persuade my companions; they could see with their own eyes that th
e tower could not long survive. In the panic of confusion Captain Coffin became somewhat addled, crying, “We are wrecked! All hands to the boats!” and barreled out the door with his cat cradled protectively in his arms, as if diving into a stormy sea. He was not entirely delusional, because he recognized the stairwell for what it was, and cautioned his sons to avoid the missing treads, and cling to the walls as we descended.

  “Stick together, boys,” he urged them. “Remember who you are, and where you came from.”

  Cash hadn’t the physical stature of his full-grown sons, but he possessed a remarkable strength for a man his age. I saw him lift a heavy, broken support beam with one hand, and shove it to the side, clearing the way down to the landing.

  Behind us the glass of the tower windows shattered, and the air from below began to rush up the stairwell, seeking escape. The wind seemed to dampen or carry away the pounding of the drums, and very gradually it subsided, until it was nothing more than a vibration under our feet, or felt in the hands where we clung to the walls, finding our way down.

  Both Nathaniel and I had managed to retain our lamps, but even so we had to feel our way, not trusting the ever-shifting shadows, which often obscured gaps in the stairway. Our progress was torturously slow, and the tower continued to slowly disintegrate around us, twisting and swaying as if struggling to unnail itself.

  The Captain stopped us, raising his head to sniff the air. “There’s a fog coming,” he announced.

  I assumed this was due to his addled state, that he was confusing the tower’s wooded interior with the ship cabins where’d he’d spent most of his life. And then I, too, got a whiff of the sea, or rather of the seaweedy smells of the harbor, and a moment later there it was, wafting through the broken rafters and beams, rising up the stairwell like smoke.

  Fog. Thick fog. Fog that could not be penetrated by our lamps. Fog so dense I could not make out Jebediah, though I had him by the hand.

  I heard Cash Coffin say, “It thinks the fog will make us afraid, and stop us moving. Never mind the fog, we know the way down. Fog’s no worse than the dark, if you trust your compass.”

  “What do we have for weapons, Father?” I heard Nathaniel hiss, his voice made strange by the clinging mist.

  “My old flintlock pistol, the very one that clubbed him to the deck,” the old man said with a kind of fierce pride.

  “Pass it to me, Father, and I shall lead the way.”

  I heard a fumbling, and then a grunt of satisfaction from Nathaniel, and was relieved to know the Captain was at last disarmed. Doubtless bullets would not be effective against our invisible adversary, since you cannot shoot what you cannot see, but now at least the old man could not wound one of us, or himself. I did wonder, though, if the ancient weapon might have some power to repel the presence, and if it was the old pistol and not the tower chamber that had thus far kept Cassius Coffin safe from his adversary.

  Small comfort in the fog, in the dark, with a building collapsing all around us, and the very steps beneath our feet sliding away like pats of butter on a hot fry pan. With every passing moment my terror increased, and my eyes began to invent nightmare shapes in the fog. There a face, there a coiled snake, there a chasm that did not, could not exist, and yet it frightened me all the more.

  I waved my lamp, wielding it before me, desperately trying to penetrate the mist. I could not help but think of the fog that had clung to Raven, in that hour before the schooner was destroyed, and Tom Coffin so hideously impaled. Truly, so excited was my imagination, and so palpable my fear, that it would not have surprised me if a ship had suddenly loomed before us, though we were a thousand yards or more from the harbor. The fog made anything seem possible. Let your mind invent whatever fed its fear, and the fog would give it shape.

  It was all I could do to keep from screaming. Jebediah must have felt my growing desperation, because he gave my hand a reassuring squeeze and said, “It can’t be far.” I could feel his hand, hear his voice, but for all I could see, he had ceased to exist. Was I the same to him, a phantom connected by touch? I wondered if this was what it was like to be a ghost, haunting a world you could not see, and which could not see you.

  On the step below, not a foot away, I heard the old man grunt. “I hear a strange thing,” he said, and sure enough a new sound had insinuated itself into the confusion of noises as the tower struggled to tear itself apart. Between the shrieking of the nails and the creak of the timbers there came a low animal growling.

  Once I heard an African lion, caged for the circus, and turned to see it eyeing me balefully, the growl catching in its mighty throat. It was an old lion, suffering from the mange, and no doubt in pain, but it let me know that but for the cage I’d have been its meat. I was ten years old, or thereabouts, and pretty fearless for my age, but that lion frightened me, and I ran from the circus all the way home, imagining that it might escape and follow me, bounding over the brick and cobbled streets of Beacon Hill, hungry for boy.

  This was not a lion’s growl, exactly, but something like it, with a similar guttural power. Whatever it was, it seemed to be coming from not far below us, just around the next turn of the stairs, and I froze on the creaking steps, not wanting to advance, not willing to retreat.

  “It’s a trick,” I heard Jebediah say. “It doesn’t want us to leave the tower. We must ignore it and go forward.”

  The growl purred louder, as if in anticipation. Hungry for us. I would sooner have walked into a hail of bullets than go forward, toward that angry animal growl, but above me the timbers were collapsing. The entire structure settled to one side, pressing me against the wall, while under my feet the stair rafters shifted and sagged.

  “Hurry!” Nathaniel urged us, and so we stumbled down, feeling with our feet.

  I very nearly lost my grip on Jeb’s hand, my own was so slick with cold sweat. Our urgency was such that I was unaware until much later that my face had been slashed by exposed nails, or perhaps a splinter of snapping wood. There was blood in the air, I knew that much, and I was terrified that the scent of it was drawing the growling closer. A growling so large and powerful that it shivered its way into my chest, and made it hurt to breathe.

  “Look!”

  A glow approached from below, dipping and swaying as if trying to find us in the fog. Not a single glow, but two, it seemed, twin orbs searching for the source of fresh-cut blood. Slowly a shadow condensed around the orbs of light, and the black beast took shape. The orbs were eyes, yellow and terrible, and the shape was neither man nor animal, but something of each, and hideous, like the beast of Revelation, come at last to proclaim the end of days.

  The growl became a thunderous voice: “AND HE CRIED MIGHTILY WITH A STRONG VOICE, SAYING, BABYLON THE GREAT IS FALLEN, AND IS BECOME THE INHABITATION OF DEVILS, AND THE HOLD OF EVERY FOUL SPIRIT, AND A CAGE OF EVERY UNCLEAN AND HATEFUL BIRD. FOR ALL NATIONS HAVE DRUNK THE WINE OF THE WRATH OF FORNICATION, AND THE KINGS OF THE EARTH HAVE COMMITTED FORNICATION WITH HER, AND THE MERCHANTS OF THE EARTH ARE WAXED RICH THROUGH THE ABUNDANCE OF HER DELICACIES. LET THEM SLAY EACH OTHER, ALL OF THEM, AND CHOKE ON THE BLOOD OF THEIR TONGUES, LET THEM ALL DIE FOR A THOUSAND GENERATIONS, UNTIL THE DUST OF THEIR DUST IS FORGOTTEN.”

  It coiled then, as if readying itself to spring. A black, misshapen monstrosity with glowing eyes and a growling, sulfurous voice that became a great roaring of wind, driving the mist before it, mounting the buckled stairway with an inhuman agility.

  I heard Nathaniel cry out: “Back! Let us pass!”

  With a roar it leaped for him. A hot spark flashed, the pistol roared back, and the roar became a scream of pain, a whelp that sounded almost human. Indeed, it was human, for as the mist suddenly cleared, sucked upward by the wind, we saw Benjamin collapsed on the stairway, an oil lantern in one hand, and his Bible clutched to his breast. The bullet had pierced the Bible, then torn a great, sputtering hole in his throat, and his life bled away in but a few moments, with each beat of his dying heart.

  I rus
hed to his side, but there was nothing to be done. He tried to speak, choked weakly, and then the spark of life departed.

  Nathaniel gently pried the lantern from his brother’s hand and stood up, holding it out. “Father, I have killed him,” he said, in a small and terrible voice. “I’ve killed poor Ben, who came to save us.”

  “You thought he was the beast,” said the old man. “We all did. It tricked us.”

  “I can’t bear it,” said Nathaniel, looking away from us. “I won’t bear it.”

  With that he lifted the lantern above his head and emptied the reservoir of oil upon himself, soaking his beard and shirt. A blue flame ran down his arm and in an instant the oil ignited.

  “No!” Jebediah screamed.

  I lurched to grab him, thinking I might muffle the flames with my coat, but he deliberately took one step back and plunged through a gap in the steps, falling out of reach. He lay in the rubble below with his head and shoulders on fire, and did nothing to save himself as his face began to melt away.

  It was all I could do to seize Jeb by his nightgown and haul him back from the edge as he clawed and cried and watched his brother burning.

  The horror was not done with us. As the smoke rose in black billows from beneath the broken staircase, as the splintered timbers caught flame, and the fire commenced to take hold of the building, the old man suddenly clutched his throat and fell to his knees, his eyes rolling upward. His body convulsed and a wet gargling scream issued from his mouth.

  Beside him his great green-eyed cat howled piteously, tail and hair erect.

  “Davis! Do something!”

  I let go of Jebediah and threw myself on the old man, trying to pry loose his hands. But the convulsions had locked his fingers in place, in a death grip around his own throat. As I desperately pried, fighting to get a purchase, his eyes bulged horribly and his lips curled back in an awful grin. A lump of flesh shot from his mouth, followed by a great black clot, and I knew then that Cassius Coffin had bitten off his tongue, and was choking on his own blood.

 
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