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The Bells of Tuscarora

by Daniel Mowery



The cat wanted me to follow her, and against all sense, I did. She met me at the doors of the Keppler building, with its desolated lecture halls and computer labs, as the chapel bells across campus began their midnight song. My head swam with viscous exhaustion, the voices of a thousand scholars drowning my own feeble thoughts among them in the pursuit of an unyielding thesis. But the cat’s call silenced the tumult. 


She sat on her thin haunches, black fur slipping away into the thick night, ingested by the shadowy pockets of the landscaping greenery. The musical chimes drifted across the air, the very tune I had been studying. The forlorn atonal melody slipped through the somber air of the small campus of Tuscarora College—a variation of the Westminster Quarters just a quiver off key, the discordant vibrations of the four interchanging notes bounced in my aching skull, forcing my heartbeat to break its course and pulse in its dragging tempo.


The cat darted into the wall of mist, away but still in sight. The air was thick with autumn moisture and the sweet smell of decomposing leaves. It was unusually hot for the end of October, the sweat smelting my clothes to my skin. The world was a sea of white and gray, fog as thick as wildfire smoke, dyed with the orange glow of the campus lampposts, eerie halos of amorphous light. 


The curving concrete paths evaporated into milky tendrils, and the indistinct outlines of the building edifices were obfuscated in the haze. The cat led in the direction I would be going to my car, a route I had walked day and night a thousand times during my years at Tuscarora. My lonely steps rebounded among the sleeping walkways, dormant obsidian windows watching from their perches. She led the way, and paused just before the mist engulfed her. Her eyes gleamed green and silver, beckoning.


The fog erased any trace of stars or moon, the black-velvet of night sky bleached into an oppressive ceiling, and cloaked the Canton Student Center, blurring the pitches of grass into bland planes, smothering the ornate architectural charms and dissolving the hints of civility and life that usually roamed the campus. In the omnipresent gloom, the lucid sensation of entrapment, of drudging the same commute interminably simmered in my stomach.


I shifted my bag, full of music history and theory textbooks, eyes swollen and burning with weariness, breath heavy with humid air. In the mouth of the courtyard, the cat sat waiting, watching. When I was mere feet away, she darted off again across the open space. 


Her straight direction was dizzying against the pavers beneath, which had been laid in layered parabolas, circling across the courtyard in a spiraling whirlpool of masonry that spun toward the fountain at the center. Inside the reservoir was an ancient, coal colored stone, and atop it a rusting, ebony iron sculpture that jutted at odd, sudden angels. Wrought into the conical, twisting shape appeared to be a creature, almost too abstract to ascertain, but on close inspection there were its several legs spreading and crouched, the cradle of arms and curve of claws, and a maw with sharp protrusions, where the fountain would spring. The water had been shut off for the night, but the mist rolled down its form like tears and perspiration. 


A plaque on the ember colored brick of the reservoir read that the fountain mysteriously predated the college, founded in 1851, ten years before the abolishment of slavery in North Carolina. The stone and sculpture themselves anteceded the war between the European colonists and the Tuscaroran Indians, before the indigenous settlements entirely, not a single record of any creation or purpose, just an indecipherable, alien script scratched onto the stone, ground into obscurity over the centuries. A dark, hateful feeling exuded from the stone, enough to chill the heart on the warmest day. Not a single coin was ever tossed into the fountain, the monument and the sculpture over it known to curse instead of bless.


The courtyard was dead, my footsteps echoed on the uneven pavers, scribed with forgotten names of alumni and donors. This was the place for festivals and cookouts, crowds of students and faculty laughing and dancing, despite the ominous sculpture. This was the place for protests, hard scrabbled signs and rainbow flags, fists in the air, silent sit-ins, left in the wake of excessive force, riots, mass shootings, retracted rights, violence. It was a place to stoke the fires of rage in a burning world. 


I had always walked around, or straight through them, on to my next class, my next project, never participating in the celebration, the outrage, the community. There had been no time, only more work to do, thinking coldly that the world would sort itself out. But tonight, the life was gouged out of the courtyard. There was only me, and my guide. The desolation buried a frostbitten fang of dread into my chest.


The cat mewled again, and ran behind the Kendrick Administrative Building. So again, without choice, I followed her on my path to the parking lot. The student center commons and its lawns were already digested into the mist behind me. The shapes of trees, bushes, and benches were inkblots, ominous silhouettes that shifted in the peripherals, shuffling and stalking until pinned down with quick, uneasy glances.


She waited, then struck left away from the path, keeping to the back of the administrative building, slinking along where the concrete surface lapped against red brick, discolored by years of moldy puddles and cigarette butts, the stains of soot and ash. I watched as she trotted towards the open crawlspace door that lead to the foundations beneath Kendrick. She turned and sat in the frame of the black opening, and we each waited. 


I looked up the building, standing near the rusting fire escape. Just above me on the third floor was my advisor’s office, Dr. Seneca. Her wooden floors creaked and curved with the deformations of age, bookshelves lining the walls with musical scores and records, operas, hymns, musicals, concertos, histories, and essays. The spines bore block letters of English, curling print of Italian, French, German. 


On a lower shelf behind glass were rows of old and dilapidated tomes, centuries older than the rest, scrawled with strange and unreadable symbols. I had gone to pick one up, while Dr. Seneca was lacerating my earlier thesis drafts, drawing blood from paper with crimson pen, and she had wrenched it from my hands. 


“These are sacred,” she had said with scorn. “Passed down the generations of my family.”


“I’m sorry, I was just curious. Are they scores? I don’t recognize the language.”


“They are musical rituals, in a tongue no longer spoken. My ancestors tried to translate them when they were found entombed in the oldest parts of this county, older than the Appalachian Mountains themselves. But they failed, and they were driven out of their homes. Once the Tuscaroran tribe lost the war, they split between North Carolina and New York. These books were lost, and all but forgotten. But their purpose still burns, lying in wait. Waiting for a new beginning.”


“Perhaps they have something to do with the fountain? I may be wrong, but the script seems similar to the stone inscription. If I could borrow them, I could—”


Her wrath had sparked, grabbing my shoulders and pushing me out the door. “Get out. You have no right to touch them. Get out, and burn with rest.”


I do not think Dr. Seneca would approve of this midnight folly, much as she does not approve of my thesis. Derivative and frictionless, she said, not moving the field further, only digging an old well deeper because the soil sparkled at the bottom. “You are thinking too small, inconsequential when the fire will engulf everything. There are greater gifts of knowledge and power above us, around us. Below us.”


The cat twitched patiently, waiting until I was at the mouth of the aperture, close enough to touch her. I knelt, whispered, and reached out my hand. Her teeth sank into the soft triangle of flesh between my thumb and forefinger with impossible speed, drawing a crescent of bloody pinpricks. I cursed, sucking on the wound, the needles burning deep, sneaking like licks of flame up my wrist. She descended the steps under the building. She turned again, at the border of the shadows and called. 


And I, against all sense, followed.


I cannot explain my compulsion to pursue her. Perhaps it was retribution for the bite. Perhaps it was the words of my advisor, striking the flickering restlessness I had felt smoldering; of drowning in a mudslide of mundane academia, meaningless to all but the few music scholars who would read my thesis and forget it a week later. Or perhaps it was an attempt to quell my rising dread by staring it down, like forcing yourself to walk slowly down a dark hall, refusing to run, repressing the scream of a pounding heart and the certainty that something is creeping up from behind.


In the end, I plunged down with a skull empty of anything but the haunting, blood melody sung by copper and bronze bells, hanging in their towers like sour fruit as they began their midnight song again.


After all, I had been down here before.


My head was pounding, and I shut my eyes, sheathing the darkness into deeper pitch, the bite throbbing on my hand, and her mewl brought me back, as the bells of the Chapel chimed their forlorn tunes, the clock striking one, two, three


She was waiting for me, poised among the smoky mist, green eyes flashing emerald in the ocher-white air. I was in front of the Keppler Building again, ruminating uselessly on my shallow thesis of the religio-social history of church bells in the American South. It had meant to be a beautiful history of music, faith, and love. Instead, I found death and cruelty. 


American churches and town halls as early as the first colonies used bells to rally against Indian attacks, signal the onslaughts against the Tuscaroran forts and settlements, initiate witch burnings, alert slaves to the beginnings and ends of their days of labor—including the erection of every building of Tuscarora College—of convening and adjourning slave auctions, of lynching’s and runaways and manhunts and stonings, as well as their usual towns-keeping and church notifications. The Westminster Quarters were written in 1793 for love and glory of God, but their beauty over the centuries had been tarnished.


O Lord our God

Be Thou our guide

So by Thy power

No foot shall slide.


No, the bells loved to sing for blood.


I was frustrated, pushing past innumerable articles and books circling the centuries of bloodletting and savagery, the way I walked by the protests, growing frustrated at the saturation as I scoured vainly for the beauty, the divinity, and being denied by the insistence of focusing on the brutality and injustices, choking on the smoke from the death and cremation of the silver linings.


She cried again, breaking the cacophony of my exasperation, and she led me once more.


Despite my headache, I hummed for the company. I wished for a shadowy figure in the fog, some sign of life, but there was nothing save the austere fountain and its ominous beast frozen mid-prowl. Tuscarora College was a small, historic institution. Its mascot simply, The Indians, a giant T bedecked with red and white feathers. Despite its incumbency, Tuscarora was not a city university, where the campus melted into the community, intertwining with the thoroughfares and shops of downtown, families and alumni exploring the campus’ gardens and restaurants, a symbiosis of academia and small-town life. 


No, Tuscarora sat on the edges of city limits, clinging onto the outer reaches as a stubborn, fatty growth. The elderly and affluent in the community had a passive pride, more habit than anything, but few who grew up here stayed beyond high school, fleeing from the nest one way or another, flying away on new and weak wings aimed at the sun or the horizon, to bigger and grander things, or plummeting downward, just so desperate to leave behind and drown something dark, and malevolent, and subconscious that pervaded the campus, this side of the city. Something that crept in the deepest nightmares, the shadows under the sun, dreadful and malicious. I was of the few to remain, and then again after my Bachelor’s, seeking my graduate degree in music history in the same buildings, under the same disapproving eyes.


When she hooked left, I again paused. My car was a five-minute walk away, but what was waiting for me at home? Another day of research, another meeting with Dr. Seneca to discuss the impotence of my efforts, unimpressed even with the blood of racism and genocide that echoed the toll of the bells.


“You are not unearthing some deep secret,” she said, “only regurgitating history through some menial, selfish lens. The stories of the split tribe, the stolen lands, the enslaved and unavenged should be told, yes. But for what purpose, Anthony? The vanity of your precious church bells? You are thinking too small.”


She mewled again, a persistent call, rumbling in the desolate places, reverberating in my burning hand, pulling me in, the pain searing every step I tried to take away. There was something behind her in the dark passageway beneath the bowels of the building. A shining, shimmering dance of lights, sparkling like diamonds in the deep. I followed and squatted at the entrance. The smell of mildew wafted up. Rough cinderblocks stepped down to a space that was large enough to stand. The suffocating weight of the building settled down on my shoulders. It was dark, but the orange light filtered through in a soft, tapering aura.


The entrance was littered with rows of damaged and disregarded porcelain and old metal pipes, rows of them like chipped and filthy teeth. I followed, watching for the tail snaking between the jagged bars of rusted lead and aging sink basins, shattered and sharp. The heap ended at the back walls, where walls of stacked cinderblock funneled into a passage, just wide enough for two men to walk shoulder to shoulder. I knew what lay beyond them, for I had been down here before.


The bells sang yet again, their crushing chords so loud and clamorous that I sank to my knees, crawling towards she that was waiting down the concrete path in the courtyard, growing more impatient. The clock struck five, six, seven as I struggled to my feet, swatting away the ghostly fog that drenched my skin under the flickering lampposts. My shoes scraped across the pavers, following her in the circles swirling inwards, round and around towards, then away from the center to the iron obelisk in the fountain, then back outwards from the courtyard, the jagged lines of masonry and cement leading me back to the door, and back down, down paths I had gone a thousand times, unable to hear the words in my own head, my brain on fire, thinking too small.


In my undergraduate years, after stumbling through campus intoxicated and emboldened, we had come down here. My friends, before they graduated and moved on. They used to play music with me, a string quartet. Their mournful, quick-footed violas and violin above my somber-voiced cello moaning for searing love, heartache, the stars palpitating above. I have not heard from them in years. I have not touched an instrument since, my fingers bloating and joints calcifying around manuscripts and pens instead of the soft, supple curve of a rosined bow, the taut, quivering strings. The passion of music withering under the heat of frustration in my heart each day. We had been here before, only this deep before the fear claimed us, for this crawlspace was just one of the many myths of Tuscarora.


There were the labyrinthine nature trails behind the Chapel, where the woods housed creeping shadows in silt pools that hunted on full moons. A self-hanged student in the tree by the Dean’s house. A slit-throat scrubbed away in the attic of the all-girls dormitory, turning on showers and lights at her whims. A forlorn piano’s age-stained keys dancing alone in the Steele-Crystal Lounge among sixteen foot walls of glass and sheer white curtains, a weeping man in the basement of the music building pounding feverishly on the walls, a faceless specter tottering along the roof of the Flynn-Gallagher Library, vanishing during the plunge. This dungeon was just one more haunted diversion for the adventurous and inebriated.


Every small town has its haunts, every old academy its demons, waiting to reclaim their due.


She swam between the old pipes, cracked like rotten, putrid teeth. I followed her to the furthest point I had gone with my friends before they left, when the black undercurrents we felt all our lives became tangible, before their eyes and heart sought bigger, grander things away from this cursed town, not thinking so small. And here I was, underground, looking for shimmers in the soil. 


The corridor ran straight, with square apertures black and empty spaced precisely. The uniform cinderblock walls blending into each other. In the first room on the right, a round table, moldy and warped wood, surrounded by broken chairs. In the left enclosure, a rope hung in the center of the room, the frayed end curled in a cramped fist, black scuffs kicked into the floor beneath it, soot streaked on the stone ceiling.


The cat growled, shockingly deep, rumbling into the dark recesses. It was a threat now, guttural and menacing, and it coursed through me with a shiver. I turned, and she ran off, no longer waiting for me. I plunged after into an identical conclave. A small, square gray room, the concrete below my feet growing rougher, sloping downward, but to where, in which way? No matter which direction my feet turned, it felt like they couldn’t to grip the earth, trying not to slide down headlong.


The cat was going into the left doorway. I turned my head, and saw the same tail going in the right. I walked into the center of the space, and spun on my heel, swirling the lines of the cinderblock joints like the pavers in the courtyard into parabolas, spirals and hoops of unbroken mortar seams, and everywhere I turned was a coaxing tail caught in the moment of egress. 


I tried retracing my steps, looking for the square of orange light to the outside to release me, but it was gone. Just more claustrophobic rooms, more identical concrete enclosures. Another room, with a circle and a pentagram drawn on the floor, and four tails leading in different directions, another room with bloody calligraphy and stains on the walls, candlelit sconces glowing orange that cast black, pitted scars like negative constellations in the stones, and finally a bright amber light, like a fire, or a lamppost, glowing through the next passage. 


I ran, perspiring, hyperventilating, asphyxiating. As my head rang and the bells sang, this time all around me echoing and reverberating were voices, chanting with the notes, words deep, powerful, and resonant, words heavy with each strike of the bell. I ran, and the orange light flashed, and I was following her again through the courtyard, counting as the toll of the bells mounted higher, seven, eight, nine…


She led the way through the mist, and in absolute fear, I fled. Feet pounding the pavers in the courtyard, ankles twisting as the sinking, chipped corners gave way, bruising palms and knees and stumbling in front of the fountain, bowing down to it in terror and panic. The stench of decomposing leaves filled my throat, and on my tongue the metallic tang of blood, like the copper and bronze of the bells, in my nostrils the smell of char and burning. I swatted away the sickly clouds of vapor clotting the path. I ran across grass, mulch, gravel, pavers, concrete, and always, always came back to the fountain and my throbbing hand. 


The maw of the wrought iron beast snarled skyward, its hooked arms pointing south now, instead of east, now west, towards the student center, now north in an unnerving pirouette. The weight of the heavy, flat gray sky compressing the world down into this mad microcosm, down to my searing breath and screaming head, spinning in loops growing tighter, growing too small.


The cat leapt, and clawed at my hand, rending flesh and drawing blood, dripping into the stale water of the reservoir in twisting curls like tongues of scarlet flame. Her growl deepened as she led me away, the sound seeming to churn the ground, shaking the very buildings as if they were dry, hollow bones. The lines circling inward round and around, the downward slide of the crawlspace floor, the joints of the cinderblocks flooded with trails of blood.


The bells screamed, eight, nine, ten, and there was a figure, coming down the dungeon corridor. Their face hidden underneath a hooded robe. They led a procession of faceless creatures, slow and solemn, carrying offerings of fetid meat, lumps of silver and golden ores, books ancient and frayed with strange inscriptions, candelabras with dancing orange flames. They marched past me, chanting with the peals of the chapel bells a strange, familiar song. They chanted with rage, supplication, and as the bell chimed, they said a word I could recognize, spoken in a hundred voices, Come, come, come. Keuh-heh-yeuh, concolor, Menesulthar. Gah-gee, Th’Keh-Weh-Neeh, come.


I broke through their line, running, weeping. Their march was looped from one room to the next, walking in endless queues to eternity, no more beginning, no more end as they chanted, and the song of the bells no longer paused for breath, the atonal melody repeating madly over and over, round and around, the chime of the hour crashing like hammer on bone.


“You’re thinking too small, Anthony” a voice said from the darkness. It ground through the stones, coming from the earth itself.


Another room, hooded figures scraping their fingernails down the cinderblocks, painting grotesque animals, disemboweled bodies, broken chains in grit and blood, fires and a beast mighty and frightening.


“What would you elucidate regurgitating the past, without looking to the future? What use is knowledge without action, pleasure without pain, justice without retribution? A dying world without flames to purify it?”


Another room, a circle of neophytes, kneeling, supplicating to a replica of the fountain sculpture, with its teeth bared and glistening, its iron fur dripping with wax and blood. As the music surged, the bells crescendo with urgency and madness, the worshipers convulsed, their bodies bowing and bringing their heads down in penitence, faster, harder, until their heads cracked against the concrete again and again and again, eight, nine, ten, the splatter of skulls, gray matter, blood on the floor, dripping from the idol like tears and perspiration.


She roared, the beast from all around and above, from below. I ran, the cinderblock walls melted together into seamless stone, the path leading downward, round and around. Warm, viscous liquid dropped from the low ceiling. Half-emerged from the soil above were mutilated hands, faces blemished by pox-scars and lesions, skin disfigured by whips, knives, burns, arms scathed by shackles, necks indented by rope, their bodies bloated, and from them dangled chains, gore and tattered flesh, white feathers stained crimson, their opening, roving eyes milky with decay were watchful and pleading, catching the light of the candles like rancid, spoiled honey.


“The earth has been forced to drink the blood of the massacred, the enslaved, the impoverished, the hated, the cast away. Did you think She could swallow the cries and flesh of martyrs for centuries and there would be no consequences? She demands retribution, sacrifice paid with sacrifice. It is a cycle to be broken. What justice is there in learning, yet doing nothing? Your passivity is perpetuation. You have sat in silent complicity, accomplished nothing, aided no one. You blinded yourself to the world out of petulant ignorance in search of vanity and beauty. You are thinking too small, a sin that can no longer go unforgiven. The time has come for the wicked to burn, for the world to rise again from the ash. Come, Keuh-heh-yeuh.”


The bells clanged, they were everywhere, the chanting quickening,


Menesulthar

Hear now our cries

So by thy power

All men shall die


Come, come, come, Keuh-heh-yeuh, concolor, Menesulthar. Gah-gee, Th’Keh-Weh-Neeh, come, nine, ten, eleven. The music pulsed in the core of my body, my throat raw as I cried, unaware of the words, the atonal song coming from my lips in ragged gasps, pleading, come, come, come, die, die, die…


There, a light. Not the orange of fire, or electric artifice, but a circle of pure white light ahead. I sprinted to the portal in the floor, and the chiming ceased, the melody fell silent, and the voices and roaring dropped far behind, into a whisper, and then softer, softer, and I surfaced into sharp, fresh air. I got on my belly, grasping for the rim with tremulous hands, arms and chest scraping against the stone as I pulled myself somehow upwards and out into the night.


The fog had cleared. I stood in the reservoir of the fountain. The lampposts had been doused, and there was nothing but the blackberry-violet color of clear night sky. The buildings slumbered, and the wind whispered with the skeletal trees, the leaves skittering in flurries and flocks. In the stillness, my pounding heart and scorching brain seemed painfully clamorous. Shaking, I clambered out of the basin. The cat was nowhere to be seen.


I wondered what time it was, and the thought elicited a harsh, deranged laugh. Inside the fountain where I had emerged was a hole, black and bottomless, the edges of the aperture were threaded, round and around, spiraling downward. The stone had been lifted and flung aside. It lay shattered on the ground outside the reservoir, the iron sculpture warped and twisted. A stench wafted up from the pit, millennia of stagnated air, of death and brimstone unleashed.


The Chapel bell tower awoke one final time, and the ground shook. It played its wretched, wrathful melody, each strike quaking the earth with unencumbered, righteous rage, indelible and undeniable. The buildings groaned, glass windows shattering, bricks crumbling, pavers splitting, and a roar all around, above, below. From the pit came a spark, and the grasping whips of growing flames began to rise, burning hotter, brighter, a dormant inferno awakened, eager for its appointed time.


As the clock struck ten, eleven, twelve, She emerged from the blazing pit of the ancient fountain, as old as the world itself. First the massive paws, tipped with curving scythes, cutting through the air and piercing the pavers like soft sand. Six long, muscled limbs appeared, jointed like a spider and covered in singed black fur. Her coat was so black that it swallowed the night around it, pulling it in and desiccating both the shadows and the light. The massive arachnidan limbs unfurled as she wretched herself through the small portal, rivers of meat rippling like the unbreakable currents of an icy black ocean. 


Finally came her awful head, the face of a beast enormous and ancient, flames curling from Her mouth. The world had grown soporific, desensitized by buried histories of blood and genocide that it had forgotten the true face of fear that lurked in the darkest corners of the mind, in the deepest bowels of the earth. Her head was angular, in the likeness of a panther, with ferocious jaws that could hold a full grown man upright, decimating him in a single snap even as her breath burned him alive. Her teeth glistened in the air, sharp and jagged like broken pipes, stained with millennia of rot and unrequited bloodlust. Adorning her maw hung a set of twitching, burred mandibles dripping with starvation. Six eyes shone brightly along her brow, blazing a terrifying, ghostly emerald, and the licking flames of a hateful, orange furnace churning deep within under the silver flashes of the moon. 


As she stretched herself toward the heavens, leathery, bony wings unfurling to blanket the sky in its unending obsidian reach, a serpentine tail, as thick as a tree trunk shot out from under Her body, and buried a barb, as long and thick as my torso into my stomach, pinning me down to the pavers. She raised herself up, as tall as the trees, and roared with hunger and fury.


I lay still on the ground, feeling the exchange of my leaking blood with a boiling venom coursing like magma in my body. In my final moments, I looked past her eyes and fiery forked tongue to the endless night sky. With the lights of the campus and the city extinguished, I could see the brilliant, cold moon, the shimmering stars sparkling like gems in the black void. With the fog lifted, the galaxy alive, and the molten poison pumping through me, flames erupting on my skin, I could feel my mind opening and clearing. I could finally see something far bigger, and grander, than I had ever dreamed. The sublime and the tragic coexisting, the searing pain and tribulation alongside the glories of heaven and earth. 


Every land has its horrors, every era its end. 


I saw the future, how the centuries of suffering would soon be over, the beauty and the blood would run thick and bountiful, and the flames would devour them all. It would be magnificent. I saw everything, I saw Her, and I saw that it was good.


END



 


Daniel Mowery (he/him) lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife, daughter, and dog. He reads and writes dark, beautiful, and often odd fiction. He works in residential construction and plays his drum set and keyboard when possible. He received a BA in Literature & Creative Writing from Catawba College (go Indians!). He never regrets that he chose not to follow that cat into the crawlspace. His work has been seen in Roi Faineant Literary Press, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Corvus Review, and Death Knell Press among others, with work upcoming in Cowboy Jamboree's Motel Anthology, Exposed Bone Lit Mag, and Short Scares: Two Sentence Horrors Anthology. You can find him at danielmowerywrites.com, or on most social media as @DMoweryWrites

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