in New England is colder than a sorcerers gaze,and I shivered to be in it
once again. It seemed a bad sign to be called back for a family funeral,
when I had made my break and gone west only two months before. I had screwed
up the gumption of my 26 years and headed for sunny California, not so much
for the change of place as for the change of people. Mostly, truth be told,
I had felt that I had to get away from the weakening remnants of my family,
a strange group of aging aunts and uncles, distant in their attitudes but
demanding in their needs.
Somehow they struck
me as silently scheming, determined to keep me around to serve them, running
their errands in the evening after my day job and shivering through years
of New England Octobers. These older relations all had fine homes, but theyd
been brought up to find virtue in the chilling air. No one with any spine
lights the furnace until November, Uncle Seymour had told me on many a frosty
large lock clunked open and the ornate door scraped softly against the wooden
floor of the entryway as I let myself into the home of my now late Uncle
Seymour, God rest his soul. There was the familiar creak of hall floorboards,
just outside the massive front room that Uncle Seymour always insisted on
calling the drawing room. Other than that, the grand old place was quiet
as a tomb, but then, it always had been eerily silent, even when my uncle
Still, I gasped
when I turned on the drawing room light. For a moment, I felt like Id entered
a crime scene. Signs of a struggle! I thought in a flash. But, no ... no,
he didnt die like that. He died of a heart attack. His sister, Aunt Winnie,
who lived a few blocks down, had told me so when she had called me home.
The coroner has
come and gone, she said. Seymours heart always was his weak point, dear.
Dirkens Funeral Home, she reminded me, is still the mortuary favored by The
Old Families like ours.
I could picture him flailing as he fell. Knocking over the lamp. I shivered.
Thank God the coroner had come and gone.
But there was more
to the disorder than just the chaos of my uncles final moments. There was
longer-term chaos apparent here. It seemed that Uncle Seymour had, very
uncharacteristically, left a great many of his things strewn carelessly about
the drawing room in his last days. He had always been so particular about
how his valuables were displayed: his antique books, his ebony carvings,
an old jeweled sword, custom-made for a long-dead crusader. All scattered
about now, like toys tossed aside by a spoiled child.
His earthly home
had truly been a mansion, but suddenly it seemed all worn down and shabby,
in need of too much attention. The heavy velvet draperies between the drawing
room and formal library couldnt have become so dusty just in the few days
since my eccentric uncle had passed on to points unknown. Oh, devil take
him, anyway! It wasnt so much the mess hed left for me to clean that made
me curse him, it was the other mess hed left me. I, and only I, was to enter
his house, according to the instructions hed left with Winnie. I alone was
to determine how his things would be distributed to his sisters and his brother,
to my cousins and to myself. An honor, my aunt had said. But here in his
gloomy house, with his death still present in the details, it felt more like
Well then, get
started, I prodded myself, just as my uncle would have done. First things
first. Too early in the season for the furnace; use the fireplace. He had
at least stocked a fat woodpile next to the grate, and I built up a roaring
blaze to beat back that October feeling. I shoved open the draperies to let
in the last of the fading afternoon sunlight and decided to add one last
log to the fire. Thats when I found the envelope, sticking out of the wood-box,
right under the last log I grabbed.
It was just waiting
there, like a hidden message to me from Uncle Seymour, who knew I would do
first things first. A large manila envelope, old and dry and brown, like
an elm leaf in the fall. I ran my hands across it, smoothed my palms against
the length of it. Something about the feeling of the pages within, and the
sound they made as I shifted the package from hand to hand, made me think
of yellowing parchment. On the front was a note, in Uncle Seymours bold
and elegant handwriting, with just a touch of shakiness in the lettering:
This Envelope is to be Destroyed, Unopened, Upon the Death of Seymour
Blanchette. Yellowing parchment, it felt like, somehow. And something else
I could feel in there - like a lump of sealing wax impressed on some letter
Well, now. Sealing
wax and old pages - Oh my God, I said out loud, and sat down hard on the
rug by the woodpile.
What if the old
story were true? If was foolish, but
could it be true?
hot and cold all over, like a scared and awestruck 16-year-old; the girl
I was 10 years ago when Sandy came to visit. She was a distant cousin who
stayed only a week and became even more distant afterwards. But while she
was here, she urged me to leave and succeeded in scaring the wits out of
me for months. She said Uncle Seymour worshipped the dark side; that he idolized
all that was deathly and horrible, and that he had somehow, clandestinely,
come into possession of some old, stolen manuscripts. How he got them, and
from whom, she didnt know. But they were, she announced with teenage certainty,
quite definitely original manuscripts and letters of Edgar Allen Poe. And
whats more, she said, she wouldnt be surprised if theyd been delivered
by Satans own demons. It had set my young heart nervously a-flutter back
then, and I had peeked on the shelves behind my uncles extensive, leather-bound
Poe collection, seeking but never finding evidence of ill-gotten manuscripts.
It wasnt until months after Sandy left that I worked out how utterly improbable
But now my heart
was thudding again. In here! Maybe. In this envelope! Maybe The Raven
is in here - the beastly birds hovering form, drawn by the author in his
ponderings, evermore adorning the bent corner of the second handwritten page.
Here! The Pit and the Pendulum, and how many more stories of darkness?
The historical significance! Maybe. Oh my.
But how to explain
how one happens to have come by them? No doubt theyre worth a great deal
of money ... but ... oh... no. Selling them would surely be illegal if theyre
stolen in the first place, I realized. He wants me to get rid of them.
My thoughts were
another log on the fire. I held the envelope up to the firelight, but couldnt
make out a thing inside. I decided I needed a cigarette. I tried to quiet
my mind. What would an ordinary person, whos not from this strange family,
do right now? It always calmed me to try to bring a more sensible approach
in amongst my relatives eccentricities. How would normal families handle
sensible person wouldnt be thrown into a panic by some teenage idea that
her uncle had made a clandestine deal with the devil, I told myself. Okay,
fine. Im a young woman, entrusted by her uncle to carry out his last wishes.
I should just do it and be done with it. I have enough decisions to make
about the things he did leave behind for his heirs.
Probably its only
his old tax returns anyway, and he thought hed need to keep a dignified
secrecy about his financial affairs even in death. Poor old villain. He was
a funny guy. But not bad, of course. Always kind, in his own rather chilly
way. A wave of guilt washed over me. Why couldnt I find in myself some affection
for him now? Why entertain these dark suspicions?
it out with myself. But in the end, the years of family loyalty decided the
matter. The envelope said not to open it, and I owed my uncle that respect.
If he had hoarded some ill-gotten memorabilia based on his obsession with
a horror writer who lived an insanely haunted life ... well, let Uncle Seymour
take that up with St. Peter. Thats not my situation to sort out, I decided.
And its probably not true anyhow. The old man made it through this life
with his name unsullied. If he committed a crime, let him take it with him
to his death.
myself before I put the envelope in the fire. Later, when I thought about
it, that struck me as kind of strange, and I wonder if it did me any good.
I placed the package deliberately, directly into the center of the flames,
and I assured myself it was the right thing to do. I left the room, and I
didnt look back.
There was still
so much to do in that old house, but first I wanted a cup of tea from the
kitchen, down the labyrinthine hallway in the east wing. In colonial times,
the kitchen was separate, but the house had been expanded to enclose it since
then. The disorder in the kitchen, I saw, was worse than in the drawing room,
and I set to work there, resigned to the size of the task.
If I had known
then what I know now, I wonder if I could have changed a thing. As it was,
I just didnt see.
in the drawing room to watch the fire split the envelope open, to see the
yellowing parchment, the black ribbons - black! - come spilling out, or the
letter with the seal in dripping blood-red wax. I didnt see which accursed
page of Poes tortured writings fell burning from the fireplace, or what
item, left carelessly about by my uncle in his dying days, caught fire next
and spread destruction. By the time I knew about it, it was too late. Too
late to save anything. Too late to do anything at all but watch the firefighters
pour water into the charred remains of a once-fine house.
This scrap of
parchment, with the bit of ribbon held on still by just the faintest bit
of blood-red sealing wax ... this I found blowing round and round in the
garden. A relic that once bore the seal of my uncles eternal doom. It is
my curse now, and none but mine. I have seen to that, I assure you. I have
made the necessary arrangements with the owner of the seal. This emblem of
destruction, sign of a sordid pact, must follow me to my death. And so it
shall, if only I can find someone trustworthy to dispose of my things when
I go. The arrangement, you see, has stipulations as to the disposal of the
keep it now in a manila envelope, marked for destruction upon my death.