The director of facilities was a small man with ruddy cheeks and dark, deep-set eyes, his prominent forehead framed by an explosion of cottony white hair, thinning as it marched toward the back of his head, cowlicks rising from the mass like waves moving toward the slightly pink island of his bald spot. His handshake was quick and strong, though not too quick and not too strong: He was accustomed to gripping arthritic fingers.
“Thank you for coming,” he said. He released my hand, wrapped his thick fingers around my elbow, and guided me down the deserted hallway to his office.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“Breakfast,” he said.
His office was at the far end of the common area, a cluttered, claustrophobic room dominated by a mahogany desk with a broken front leg that someone had attempted to level by placing a book beneath it and the dingy white carpet. The desktop was hidden beneath listing towers of paper, manila file folders, periodicals, and books with titles such as Estate Planning 101 and Saying Good-bye to the Ones You Love. On the credenza behind his leather chair sat a framed photograph of an elderly woman scowling at the camera, as if to say, Don’t you dare take my picture! I assumed it was his wife.
He settled into his chair and asked, “So how is the book coming?”
“It already came,” I answered. “Last month.” I pulled a copy from my briefcase and handed it to him. He grunted, flipped through some pages, his lips pursed, thick brows gathering over his dark eyes.
“Well, glad to do my part,” he said. He held the book toward me. I told him it was his to keep. The book remained between us for a moment as he glanced about the desk, looking for the most stable pile upon which to balance it. Finally it disappeared into a drawer.
I had met the director the year before, while researching the second book in the Alfred Kropp series. At the cli**x of the story the hero finds himself at the Devil’s Millhopper, a five-hundred-foot-deep sinkhole located on the northwest side of town. I had been interested in the local legends and tall tales regarding the site, and the director had been kind enough to introduce me to several residents who’d grown up in the area and who knew the stories of this mythical “gateway to hell,” now a state park, presumably because the devil had departed, making way for field-trippers and hikers.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll be sure to pass it around.”
I waited for him to go on; I was there on his invitation. He shifted uneasily in his chair.
“You said on the phone you had something to show me,” I gently prodded him.
“Oh, yes.” He seemed relieved and now spoke rapidly. “When we found it among his effects, you were the first person I thought of. It struck me as something right up your alley.”
“Found what among whose effects?”
“Will Henry. William James Henry. He passed away last Thursday. Our oldest resident. I don’t believe you met him.”
I shook my head. “No. How old was he?”
“Well, we aren’t really sure. He was an indigent-no identification, no living relatives. But he claimed to have been born in 1876.”
I stared at him. “That would make him one hundred and thirty-one years old.”
“Ridiculous, I know,” the director said. “We’re guessing he was somewhere in his nineties.”
“And the thing of his you found that made you think of me?”
He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a bundle of thirteen thick notebooks, tied in brown twine, their plain leather covers faded to the color of cream.
“He never spoke,” the director said, nervously plucking at the twine. “Except to tell us his name and the year he was born. He seemed quite proud of both. ‘My name is William James Henry and I was born in the year of our Lord eighteen-hundred and seventy-six!’ he would announce to anyone who cared to listen-and anyone who didn’t, for that matter. But as to everything else-where he was from, to whom he belonged, how he’d come to the culvert where he was discovered-silence. Advanced dementia, the doctors told me, and certainly I had no reason to doubt it… until we found these wrapped in a towel beneath his bed.”
I took the bundle from his hand. “A diary?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Go on. Open that top one and read the first page.”
I did. The handwriting was extremely neat, though small, the script of someone who had had formal schooling, when instruction had included lessons in penmanship. I read the first page, then the next, then the following five. I flipped to a random page. Read it twice. While I read, I could hear the director breathing, a heavy huffing sound, like a horse after a brisk ride.
“Well?” he asked.
“I see why you thought of me,” I said.
“I must have them back, of course, when you’re finished.”
“I’m required by law to keep them, in the unlikely event a relative shows up for his things. We’ve placed an ad in the paper and made all the necessary inquiries, but this sort of thing happens all too often, I’m afraid. A person dies and there is no one in the world to claim them.”
“Sad.” I opened another volume to a random page.
“I haven’t read all of them-I simply don’t have the time-but I am extremely curious to hear what’s in them. There may be clues to his past-who he was, where he came from, that sort of thing. Might help in locating a relative. Though, from the little I’ve read, I’m guessing this isn’t a diary but a work of fiction.”
I agreed it would almost have to be fiction, based on the pages I’d read.
“Almost?” he asked. He seemed bemused. “Well, I suppose nearly anything is possible, though some things are much more possible than others!”
I took the notebooks home and placed them on top of my writing desk, where they stayed for nearly six months, unread. I was pressed on a deadline for another book and didn’t feel compelled to dive into what I assumed to be the incoherent ramblings of a demented nonagenarian. A call that following winter from the director goaded me into unwrapping the frayed twine and a rereading of the first extraordinary few pages, but little progress besides that. The handwriting was so small, the pages so numerous, written on front andback, that I just skimmed through the first volume, noting that the journal seemed to have been composed over a span of months, if not years: The color of the ink changed, for example, from black to blue and then back again, as if a pen had run dry or been lost.
It was not until after the New Year that I read the first three volumes in their entirety, in one sitting, from first page to last, the transcript of which follows, edited only for spelling and correction of some archaic uses of grammar.
ONE. “A Singular Curiosity”
These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed.
But he is dead now and has been for more than forty years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets.
The one who saved me… and the one who cursed me.
I can’t recall what I had for breakfast this morning, but I remember with nightmarish clarity that spring night in 1888 when he roused me roughly from my slumber, his hair unkempt, eyes wide and shining in the lamplight, the excited glow upon his finely chiseled features, one with which I had, unfortunately, become intimately acquainted.
“Get up! Get up, Will Henry, and be quick about it!” he said urgently. “We have a caller!”
“A caller?” I murmured in reply. “What time is it?”
“A little after one. Now get dressed and meet me at the back door. Step lively, Will Henry, and snap to!”
He withdrew from my little alcove, taking the light with him. I dressed in the dark and scampered down the ladder in my stocking feet, putting on the last of my garments, a soft felt hat a size too small for my twelve-year-old head. That little hat was all I had left from my life before coming to live with him, and so it was precious to me.
He had lit the jets along the hall of the upper floor, though but a single light burned on the main floor, in the kitchen at the rear of the old house where just the two of us lived, without so much as a maid to pick up after us: The doctor was a private man, engaged in a dark and dangerous business, and could ill afford the prying eyes and gossiping tongue of the servant class. When the dust and dirt became intolerable, about every three months or so, he would press a rag and a bucket into my hands and tell me to “snap to” before the tide of filth overwhelmed us.
I followed the light into the kitchen, my shoes completely forgotten in my trepidation. This was not the first nocturnal visitor since my coming to live with him the year before. The doctor had numerous visits in the wee hours of the morning, more than I cared to remember, and none were cheerful social calls. His business was dangerous and dark, as I have said, and so, on the whole, were his callers.
The one who called on this night was standing just outside the back door, a gangly, skeletal figure, his shadow rising wraithlike from the glistening cobblestones. His face was hidden beneath the broad brim of his straw hat, but I could see his gnarled knuckles protruding from his frayed sleeves, and knobby yellow ankles the size of apples below his tattered trousers. Behind the old man a broken-down nag of a horse stamped and snorted, steam rising from its quivering flanks. Behind the horse, barely visible in the mist, was the cart with its grotesque cargo, wrapped in several layers of burlap.
The doctor was speaking quietly to the old man as I came to the door, a comforting hand upon his shoulder, for clearly our caller was nearly mad with panic. He had done the right thing, the doctor was assuring him. He, the doctor, would take the matter from here. All would be well. The poor old soul nodded his large head, which appeared all the larger with its lid of straw as it bobbed on its spindly neck.
“’Tis a crime. A bloody crime of nature!” he exclaimed at one point. “I shouldn’t have taken it; I should have covered it back up and left it to the mercy of God!”
“I take no stances on theology, Erasmus,” said the doctor. “I am a scientist. But is it not said that we are his instruments? If that is the case, then God brought you to her and directed you hence to my door.”
“So you won’t report me?” the old man asked, with a sideways glance toward the doctor.
“Your secret will be as safe with me as I hope mine will be with you. Ah, here is Will Henry. Will Henry, where are your shoes? No, no,” he said as I turned to fetch them. “I need you to ready the laboratory.”
“Yes, doctor,” I responded dutifully, and turned to go a second time.
“And put a pot on. It’s going to be a long night.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I turned a third time.
“And find my boots, Will Henry.”
“Of course, sir.”
I hesitated, waiting for a fourth command. The old man called Erasmus was staring at me.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” the doctor said. “Snap to, Will Henry!”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Right away, sir!”