Monday, December 14, 2009

The Cry of the Fates

The Cry of the Fates

The old Norns Cement plant had closed down about five years ago, the piercing scream of the whistle on the side of the factory announcing that the last remaining workers were quietly leaving at the end of that solemn day so long ago. It was the same note heard every weekday at 1:00 and 6:00 p.m.—the sound of lunch break and of quitting time—that had become such an ingrained part of daily life you could practically set your watch to. The amazing thing was how it had suddenly become a forlorn cry instead of the usual nostalgic sound penetrating the air as the workers slowly shuffled home. And as that once-great beast of activity died and soon fell to neglected ruin, so too did this little Appalachian town follow it down into obscurity.

Nearly all of us lost our jobs in the weeks preceding the shut-down—with my old age I was of course one of the first to go—and it left everyone with little more than a pink-slip and a hot temper. I think that the hollow feeling that you find suddenly residing in your stomach when the realization hits home that you're no longer the breadwinner had left a lot of people uncertain and scared. I remember that feeling, but things were different for me now. I didn't have the same responsibilities, the same worries that the other younger folks in town had. I simply went home to an empty house, thinking again of my wife and how much I had missed her these three years since her death, and I thought about what my next move would be. Should I finally just give in and retire, or should I look for another job just to pass my days outside of a lonely, quiet place that used to feel so warm for me? Fortunately, I had Social Security to fall back on, but not everyone was so lucky. My concerns weren't on finances, so I guess that made my position enviable from some people's perspectives.

Either way, the decisions had to be made, and shortly after the shutdown the anger of the town had abated, as it is always does, into an empty resignation that filled the hearts of those who had once thrown out bold talk of "strikes" and "filing grievances" with relentless fervor. They didn't know who exactly was there to listen, but I'd be willing to bet that the act of talking about it had at least helped to soothe the inescapable feeling of helplessness. Almost overnight, shops began to close, folks began to move to other productive factory towns nearby, and Perch Creek seemed to be fading away. Sorrow had soon turned to desperation, and desperation grew into fear as time marched slowly, steadily onwards and the fate of the town unfolded. Over the past five years since the factory shut its gates for good, I thought that the town had known fear and despair, and that the looming threat of financial and personal ruin had left us all questioning the future. That was before the Norns Cement factory whistle decided to start up once again.

It was about two weeks ago when things began going to Hell. I remember because it was Sunday, after church was over, and I was sitting up in the hills behind my house having a nice lunch. The view up there encompasses such a span of the horizon that I feel like I'm in Heaven itself sometimes. There's nothing like a high mountain view to make you feel like the world is entirely divine, despite how much you know there's stuff going on below you that you'd rather not think about. From above, everything looks pure, and it always made me understand why God has decided to forgive us all the times He has. Anyway, despite the light blanket of mosquitoes and gnats that buzzed around me when the breeze wasn't blowing, I was enjoying my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, apple, and apple juice. It was the same lunch I made every Sunday, the same lunch my wife had made for me every Sunday for years before her death. It was kind of a habit, one that you don't think about until you're doing it—and enjoying it all the more for how much it means to you. I was chewing the last bit of my apple when, out of the soft sighing of the summer breeze and the rustling of the leaves, the sound of something more sinister arose—a piercing metallic whine that seemed almost as angry as it did hungry.

I had set down my little glass bottle of juice, tilted my head, and just listened as the shriek rose to near-inaudible frequencies. Birds took flight from the trees in a frenzy of beating wings, squirrels chattered angrily as their endless quests for things to bury away were interrupted, and a dark band of clouds covered the sun as if to protect it from the sound. I sat in wonder as the banshee-like cry kept up for about a minute, finally dying as quickly as it had started. I chuckled to myself, I remember, out of sheer bewilderment.

"Now what's that damn whistle doing, blowing again?" I asked myself aloud. Still smiling, I picked the remnants of my lunch off the soft green grass, stretched my sore old legs, and walked back to the house.

The headline in the next morning's edition of The Perch Creek Gazette had caught my eye, but at that time I didn't make any connection with the day before and what had happened. "Resident dies in traffic, crashes into building," it read in big bold letters. The story below told about how Helen Troyan, a 47 year-old housewife in "top physical condition" according to her doctor's quote in the paper, had died of a sudden heart attack while driving down Central Avenue and crashed into the Granger Hardware Store. Luckily, no one else was injured, but what had caught my eye was the time of the accident: 1:00 p.m. That was around the same time I was having lunch—and when the whistle blew. I laughed a little, thinking that maybe the sick sound of that whistle had frightened the poor lady to death. It wasn't a funny event of course, don't get the wrong idea, but it was just one of those coincidences that life throws at you where all you can do is scratch your head and shrug your shoulders.

But there is coincidence and there is fate, I say, and that whistle-blow from the outskirts of town quickly turned out to be no mere coincidence. Every day after that initial Sunday, the whistle would unleash its strangely furious howl—sometimes at 1:00 and sometimes at 6:00—and every day the same thing happened. I started saving all the papers after the first one, cataloguing each death in order to prove to myself that it wasn't all just some strange nightmare. Every day that whistle would blow, and every time the next morning's paper would have a story about someone dying at that same moment. They weren't suspicious deaths or anything more than "natural causes," whatever that means, but the town soon took notice of the macabre timing of the whistle blows.

About three days after the Troyan woman died, the headline of the paper was in larger type. The story was not so much about Jonathan Shroud's death due to "heart attack after years of smoking and ill-health," but about the Norns Cement whistle that was blowing at the time of his passing. The editor asked if there could be some sinister prank going on in town, why the whistle suddenly started to blow and people suddenly started to die, and the article called upon Sheriff Vergil Chaff to launch at least a semblance of an investigation into the matter. Letters from curious, cynical, and yet still noticeably frightened townspeople took up most of the Editorial page, but nothing near panic had set in. It was still much too early for anyone to start panicking. I mean, this town had seen its main employer close with no explanation, laying-off nearly eighty percent of the residents, and we were still around. A little bit of strange coincidence was nothing for anyone to lose too much sleep over.

A week and a half went by before Sheriff Chaff finally went up to the factory to look around. With ten dead bodies in as many days and nothing but questions surrounding him, he was forced to do something about the matter, even if it was more for appearances than anything else. In a small town like this, people wanted to feel at peace, no matter if the monster still sat waiting in the shadows behind them, and that's what Vergil Chaff intended to provide. In an interview in Wednesday's paper, the Sheriff told everyone about what he saw:

"Well, I went up to the factory and kind of poked around, you know, just to see if I could detect any signs of illegal entry, tampering, that sort of thing. It was a dead place, a spooky place almost. You have to remember that there ain’t been anyone in there for five years now. It just seemed empty. I could tell right away that there hadn't been any break-ins or anything. The dust was so thick on the floor that it reminded me of snow, and all I could see were rat tracks, animal droppings, things like that along with the blanket of dust. I looked around inside the main production area, but the only things in there were them ol’ rusty machines, and since I didn't see any signs of vagrants or anything I went up to the main office where the controls for the whistle were all located. There was just more dust and stuff, broken knobs and cracked plastic panels up in there, so I headed to the roof to have a look at the whistle itself.

"I went over to the Eastern side of the building, where the whistle is, to look for any tampering. It was just a plain metal pipe running up the side of the factory wall, rising up to where the whistle housing sat about ten or twelve feet above the roof. It was a sight, especially after all run-down condition of the factory inside. The piping itself looked brand new despite the fact that the place had been closed for five years. It was nearly perfect, the casing intact and the housing at the top smiling down like it was glad to see me. It looked almost like a pointy little chrome hat for the air escape hatch sitting over the smile of the whistle’s mouth.

"The only thing I could see wrong with it was a four-inch gouge running down the pipe, which I'd say is why the thing sounds so sickly when it gets going. Whatever it was that made that crack, it must've been one hell of a force. I grabbed a hold of the pipe, just to test its strength, and it must have been two inches thick and stuck tighter to that building than white on rice. I could take my pen and stick the tip inside the crack, and that made me think that the air must have blown out a chunk of the pipe itself at some point. That was weird, the more I thought about it; but staring up at that little metal head perched high above me with its imbecile grin, I wasn't too busy thinking about weird cracks in a pipe. I just wanted to walk back through that dusty factory, climb in my patrol car, and get back to town. I sure as hell didn't want to be there if the damn thing started howling again.

"So, my official statement is that it's all just a strange coincidence. I'd say talk to the doctors in town, not me, and ask 'em why the people died. Judging by the sound of that whistle, I'd say it was shock more than fate that killed 'em."

As you can imagine, that story did little to encourage the town and even less to answer the big question of just what was going to be done. After reading the paper I called up George Fisher, my next-door neighbor, and talked to him for a few minutes. I could tell from his cautious voice that he didn't even like talking about the situation, but I pressed him anyway.

"Damn it, man, I actually start shaking when it gets near the times when that thing sounds off. I get an urge to just get in the car and drive out of town, but you know what Myra would make of that! She'd never let me forget it. I don't know what to think, what to do. It's even blowing on weekends! When did it ever blow on weekends before this, in all those years we worked there? Never. Something weird is going on here, and I'm planning to get up to my brother's place in Baltimore this weekend whether Myra likes it or not! You should think about leaving, too."

So people were scared, and hell I'll admit I was even a little scared; but I just kind of figured that if it was my time to go, it was my time to go. I sure wasn't gonna have some whistle run me out of the town I had lived in my entire life, no matter what it was doing to people every single day. Whether it be a massive coronary, a bus coming out of nowhere, or a whistle on an old cement plant, my time was gonna come regardless. Such is the way of life, the way God has run things for people ever since time began, and who am I to question that?

It has been two weeks, as I said at the start, and I think I'm writing this now just to put down on paper all the things that have happened in this little town called Perch Creek. It's funny when I think about it, how this little bump on the side of a mountain has had its share of the unexplained, but I think it just goes to show you that the complexities of life can show up anywhere. Fear and hopelessness and uncertainty can arise at any time, for any reason, and there's nothing we can do about it.

It's Sunday again, two weeks to the day after that whistle first cried out. I'm sitting in my kitchen now, eating my Sunday lunch as I have every week for the past thirty-some years, and looking out at the beautiful sun through my window. I can't help thinking of my wife, about how much I've missed her over these eight years since a drunk driver plowed into her car on I-81 as she came back from her sister's. I can almost hear her telling me to hurry up and finish eating so we can go out into the sunshine. Well, my dear, we'll be together in the sunshine eventually. The clock on the microwave reads 12:59, and I'm just wondering if anyone else will die after that whistle blows, if it ever does again. I doubt

{Editor's Note: The writing ends here, with no other marks or notes by the writer, one Herman Mercer. These pages were found among the many other things in Mr. Mercer's home, resting under his head after he died from a cardiac arrest on Sunday August 28, 1984. Also found were a collection of newspaper clippings, dating back approximately two weeks before his death, all of which related to the events recounted herein.

The Norns Cement factory described in these pages was torn down under the direction of Sheriff Vergil Chaff one week after Mr. Mercer's death, and the reportedly mysterious deaths in the town of Perch Creek stopped immediately. The former owners of the factory were unavailable for comment. The editor offers no opinion or explanation of these events, but merely presents the pages on their own merit. It will be noted that upon medical examination, Mr. Mercer's time of death was fixed at 1:00 p.m.}

Image credit: S-b, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.