pictures by rhoda penmarq
my name is carstairs athelbert waterspoon, of the smithfield waterspoons, and i have ever been a poet and a dreamer. the story i am about to relate, however, is one that no poet would wish to dream, and no dreamer to poeticize.
"the ancients knew things of which we dare not dream." how often, dozing over the trove of dusty manuscripts in my study, had i repeated these words of the medieval chronicler known only as magnus - languorous words, evoking morning mist over blue and green fields.
how different the reality!
but i am getting ahead of myself. some background is necessary.
during the long winter of 1----, dr melville, who had long served as family physician to the waterspoons, recommended in the strongest terms that i devote less than my entire waking existence to my studies of the history of necromancy, and find something else to "occupy my mind" in his somewhat unsettling modern terminology. for dr melville, i am afraid, despite his many fine qualities and his impeccable background, had succumbed to some extent to the disease of "modernity" - as, alas, who among us, despite our best intentions, has not?
in any event, i responded with a smile, as i had so often before, that i did indeed have another occupation from that of an antiquarian - the occupation of poet. but of course he brushed that aside.
"it is still just words you are dealing with," he insisted. just words, indeed! his own words were such that i would never have politely refrained from challenging them, had they been uttered by anyone else. he shook his white head. "i would almost allow the poetry to count as something a bit different, if your subject matter dealt with something later than king arthur."
i smiled and allowed this, too, to pass unchallenged. what would he have me deal with - some modern nonsense like the crusades?
"what would you have me do?" i asked. "chop wood? traipse through the woods collecting mushrooms or sighting birds? you know how delicate my constitution is."
"have you considered playing checkers?" the doctor asked.
i was a little surprised. he had tried to interest me in chess a few years previously, with unfortunate results. i had proved so helpless at the "ancient" game that the poor doctor had to essentially tell me what moves to make in order to provide him with "competition" and the experiment had been abandoned. i could still hear him crying "no, no, no!" as the winter winds howled outside my study.
"i didn't know you played checkers, doctor," i answered. "you have never mentioned it before. rather a plebian game, is it not?"
"hardly. there is evidence of it being played five thousand years ago - who would have played it but kings? canute played chess, but tilgath pileser iii played checkers. in any event, it is not i who play, but hank thorne down at the fire house. he told me the other day he is looking for a new player, as old abner adams passed away around thanksgiving time. i thought of you - as you are so unsuited to chess, you might well be a natural at checkers." the doctor took his glasses off and began cleaning them with the blue handkerchief he kept for that express purpose.
"it will get you out of your study - and the fire house is so draughty it could almost count as outdoor exercise." this was a long speech for the doctor, and his eye twinkled a little uncertainly as he paused for breath.
"play with hank thorne!" i laughed. "i hardly think so, as he is not exactly a gentleman, is he?"
"oh, but there you are mistaken. the thornes are quite the oldest family for miles around - hank is the direct descendant, in the male line, of thaddeus thorne, who claimed the land around here from the woolly mastodons, the arctodus simus, and the other ancient inhabitants."
"hmph." i was a bit nettled by this apparent denigration of the claims of the waterspoons. "i suppose you - or hank thorne - have the papers to prove this claim."
"indeed i do."
"well then, bring them along. and if i am satisfied as to their authenticity, i will humor you and hank thorne and accede to this outlandish suggestion." and then, in defiance of the doctor and to demonstrate my total independence of him and his strictures, i took out my pipe, stuffed it with the local wild weed, and lit it.
and so it was, that on a windy afternoon a week later i found myself sitting across from hank thorne in the old firehouse on main street with a checkerboard between us on a barrel that might have held grog for general burgoyne's or general washington's troops. although i had myself verified hank's bona fides as a gentleman, i soon found that was he was as uncommunicative as any peasant or his cow.
i won the first four games, although hank had to constantly point out moves i was "forced" to make. this "forced move" element seemed to me immeasurably superior to anything in chess, relieving one of the necessity to think. i have always distrusted thought, as interfering with inspiration.
it occurred to me that perhaps hank was letting me win, as a prelude to proposing that we play for money. country mouse that i was, i smiled inwardly at this transparent ruse by my new friend.
suddenly the fire house began to shake violently, and i jumped up in alarm.
"no need to be perturbed," hank assured me, in his slow but perfectly enunciated speech. "i have had the checkers magnetized, so there is no chance they will be shifted from their proper positions."
"yes, but what - what is causing this?" i exclaimed. there was another, even more violent tremor, and then the shaking stopped.
hank looked up at me curiously. "why, what do you think is causing it? the old ones, of course."
i stared down at him blankly.
"do you mean to tell me, sir, that you have lived in these parts all your life - as dr melville assures me you have - and are not familiar with the old ones?"
i began to stammer, but stopped and asked myself just who this fellow was, to presume to address me in such an interrogatory manner.
"i am afraid i spend most of my time in my study," i answered stiffly. "perhaps some mentions of these old ones have indeed filtered through to me. if so, i may well have filtered them back out, as of no interest to myself or my life's work."
"interesting," hank thorne murmured. "interesting. is your study built on some extremely firm foundation, sir, that you have never yourself felt the rumblings of our ancient friends?"
"of course the study is built on a firm foundation," i responded. "as is the whole ancestral dwelling of the waterstones."
hank thorne pondered this, and took a pipe from his pocket. "do you mind if i smoke?"
"of course not." what a question! what did he take me for, a methodist cleaning woman?
"something other than firm foundations may be involved here," hank continued after lighting his pipe. "i shall have to consult quardley. quardley, you see, has always held that there are those whom the old ones have singled out, who will be spared when they, that is, the old ones themselves, return to reclaim the universe. but he has always assumed that those so chosen are well aware of their favored status." he looked at me challengingly.
he had lost me. i sat back down. "and who is quardley?" i asked politely.
"he is an apothecary, over in wilsonville. and a volunteer fireman, of course."
"of course. shall we continue our game?'
hank seemed to play with greater speed but less concentration than before - perhaps because he was preoccupied with the "old ones."
he won the next four games, and i took my leave, agreeing to return in three days time, on the following tuesday.