Coffins, p.28Rodman Philbrick
Let them choke on the blood of their tongues, let them all die for a thousand generations, until the dust of their dust is forgotten. With a whoosh! his hair caught fire, and before I could back away his flesh began to swell and blacken, splitting open to reveal the white bones of his skull. And yet something of him still lived, enough to comprehend what was happening, and to suffer. As his flesh was destroyed, his living eyes continued to look at me, and I saw in them an awareness that was unbearable, but nevertheless must be borne. He knew everything that had happened and everything that was to come. He knew what had been taken from him: all he had made himself, all he had bequested to his sons, and their sons, all had been destroyed, and he would carry that knowledge to the grave and beyond, forever and ever. Death would bring no relief, but the misery of eternity.
Cash Coffin had written down the curse in his own hand, in the true log of his slave ship, then waited anxiously for years, until at last it came to pass: You will be cursed and your sons will be cursed and the womb of your wife will be cursed, until there are sons no more, and everything and everyone you ever loved will perish from the earth.
I knew of the curse, and believed it inescapable, but duty compelled me to do whatever I could to save the last of the Coffins, and myself. And so I picked up my little friend, who was as soiled and bloody and helpless as a newborn child, and ran straight into the flames.
July 2, 1863
There is little more to tell. We are encamped here on a field near Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania, among the companies of the Army of the Potomac, readying ourselves for war. The reader—if ever there is to be a reader—will know that I survived the great fire that consumed the Coffin house, and was later spread by evil, spark-insinuating wind to the houses and buildings below, leaping from wood-shingled roof to wood-shingled roof, until all of White Harbor was set aflame, and its final, beautiful agony reflected in the cold waters that lapped the shore. The slow but relentless progress of the conflagration was such that all the inhabitants of the village escaped the flames, except those already lost in the tower.
I first carried Jebediah outside and rolled us both in the snow, to damp the flames that had singed us. Then I ran back inside only to discover that Barky had already escorted Miss Lucy to safety, which was a great relief, and then returned again to rescue what he could of our belongings before being forced out by the heat and smoke.
When I later found Lucy on the road, hurrying away, she was wearing a black, fur-lined cloak, and had the Captain’s enormous, green-eyed cat cradled in her arms. I begged her forgiveness for my shameful carnal acts, and promised to marry her, if she would have me. At first she would not meet my eyes, and then when I implored her to respond, she confessed she would rather throw herself into the fire than marry a monster like me, and if she found herself with child she would have it torn from her womb—never, never would she bring forth a child of our unholy union.
To my utter despair, I found that I could not disagree. “What will you do? How will you live?” When she would not at first respond, I suggested that she might seek out Mrs. Stanton, and secure a place with her.
“Mrs. Stanton is an admirable woman, but she is not family,” Lucy said, as if appalled by my ignorance, or quite possibly by my very existence, which she now found so offensive. She vowed to abide with Sarah, who now had need of a companion and caretaker. “We shall live as spinsters, simple Sarah and I. The children will call us witches, and taunt us. But we will sit on our porch as the world goes by, and laugh at the folly of men.” With that she walked away and passed out of my life forever.
As to myself, there is little of further interest. I joined with my old friend Colonel Chamberlain, and have followed him dutifully, sawing off whatever shattered limbs they bring me, always expecting to find one of Jebediah’s young Harvard Yard tormentors under my knife. If that happens it must be soon, for I am convinced a bullet waits for me in the fight about to commence.
Jebediah disagrees, or rather the one who speaks in his place disagrees. “You will live to be an old, old man,” he says, knowing how much I dread the thought. “You will die alone, far from the field of glory, and your only friend will be Monbasu. You will come to love me, and to love yourself.”
Then he laughs and laughs.
The little man has followed me into the army, acting as my assistant, although the men say he is more like my familiar, and try to keep their distance from the “mad dwarf.” For this I cannot blame them. The presence who dwells within my old friend, and has done since the night of the fire, speaks in many languages, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and the several dialects of Dahomey, and his laughter is more cruel and cutting than any of my instruments. It amuses him to act as my slave, and fetch my cocoa, and pick the vermin from my bedroll. He calls me master, but we both know who the real master is, and who the slave.
Tomorrow a great battle begins, a battle that may decide the war, and our little band of soldiers must defend a bluff against rebel forces that are certain to overrun us. Colonel Chamberlain believes that our fate is already decided, and that he himself is sure to be killed, but he will not be dissuaded from his duty. Nor I from mine. For I know now that the whole nation is cursed, and we must cleanse ourselves with the blood of the righteous. Only then may our chains be broken and our souls set free.
Only then will the horror end.
Captain Davis Bentwood,
Surgeon, 20th Maine, V Corps
Army of the Potomac
Afterword by the Editor
There is no record of a Captain Bentwood being killed in action while with the 20th Maine. Premonition of death was common among Civil War soldiers, and many who were haunted by such premonitions survived, or like the heroic Joshua Chamberlain, “died of their wounds” at an advanced age. Chamberlain was a former schoolteacher whose brilliant strategic maneuvers at Little Round Top turned the tide at Gettysburg, and secured a victory that was the first death knell of the Confederacy. Although at the time of the battle Chamberlain sincerely believed he would never survive the war, he did, and went on to be governor of Maine, and lived to be eighty-five years old, much honored and beloved. What his relationship to Davis Bentwood might have been remains unknown, although there is a curious entry in the governor’s daily journal of 1871, noting that Governor Chamberlain made an official visit to the village of White Harbor, recently rebuilt, to cut the ribbon at a new sardine cannery. “Governor had tea with his old friend Dr. B. and his dwarf, and spoke of Africa.” That is all.
Whether or not this was Davis Bentwood, or if he was at that date still accompanied by Jebediah Coffin, or how long they both may have survived, is unknown at this time.
About the Author
Rodman Philbrick grew up on the coast of New Hampshire and has been writing since the age of sixteen. For a number of years he published mystery and suspense fiction for adults. Brothers & Sinners won the Shamus Award in 1994, and two of his other detective novels were nominees. In 1993 his debut young adult novel, Freak the Mighty, won numerous honors, and in 1998 was made into the feature film The Mighty, starring Sharon Stone and James Gandolfini. Freak the Mighty has become a standard reading selection in thousands of classrooms worldwide, and there are more than three million copies in print. In 2010 Philbrick won a Newbery Honor for The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the auth
Copyright © 2002 by Rodman Philbrick
Cover design by Neil Alexander Heacox
This edition published in 2015 by Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
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Rodman Philbrick, Coffins
Coffins by Rodman Philbrick / Horror have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes