The Wabash River (photo by Bala K, Creative Commons license)
The speck of Indiana called Waverly rests in a placid region near the banks of the Wabash, where the river loops and wriggles, coyly postponing its inevitable rendezvous with the Ohio. The surrounding hills rise modestly above the horizon and, in the late 1800’s, this unassuming topography pretty well reflected local opinion of how people should behave.
At that time, a newcomer could easily disrupt the regular thrumming of Waverly’s carefully controlled existence. And did, one particular December. The townspeople knew two things about her for sure: her name—Mary Bight (the postmistress had told them that much)—and that she’d moved into old Mr. Thompson’s cottage soon after it was empty, since he now occupied an even smaller and more permanent space in the cemetery behind the Methodist church.
Word was he’d caught a chill from sleeping with the bedroom window open past Thanksgiving. “Never had a lick of sense,” the neighbors said, and the deteriorating condition of the cottage, with its reclusive tenant, confirmed it. They predicted the house wouldn’t last the winter, and the women of the town shook their heads and tsk-tsked as they hurried by on their way to Mr. Grassley’s store, as fast as the frozen puddles allowed.
No one knew where Mary came from, why she was there, or who her people were, providing a vacuum they filled with endless speculation. Mary thanked Rev. Applewood for his brief visit, but she didn’t appear at church. She nodded to postmistress Quaid when picking up her parcels, but turned away, studying the return addresses, unmindful of Miss Quaid’s affronted eagerness. Mary politely greeted the women who paid calls shortly after her arrival, but did not invite them inside. The tiny house was “too much of a mess,” she said, and their invitations to Christmas teas and open houses were neither accepted nor reciprocated.
In the winter, when Mary should have shoveled the front walk and knocked the heavy snow off the evergreens—and since she didn’t do this, several of the yews had become grotesque topiaries—she put on her crimson coat, and the townspeople saw her ramble across the fields that edged the town, a drop of red on snow clean as bandages.
In spring, when Mary should have planted her peas and lettuces and later her annuals and still later her tomatoes and peppers, she instead sat at a deal table by the open front window and clattered away on her new typewriting machine. Grassley’s young clerk, Tom Cooper, had delivered the big wooden crate on a handcart and would have helped her with it, but Mary told him to leave the box on the porch and prized it open herself. Stenciling on the box showed it arrived by train. If the new railway service, not yet a year old, brought goods that filled the crowded shelves of Grassley’s store, it also brought unfamiliar people—including Mary Bight—and noisy typewriters and city newspapers, and it made the places along its lengthy route seem closer than they ought to be.
Mrs. Parker next door complained far and wide that she had to listen to the unsettling sound of Mary’s clackety-clack-ping!, clackety-clack-ping!, morning to night. Mrs. Parker, whose few ideas were doled out by a parsimonious husband, couldn’t for the life of her figure out what Mary could be writing, day after day. Who could she be writing to? How could she have so much to say? Why couldn’t she use a pen, like regular folks? Curiosity flamed and crackled.
Postmistress Quaid, who regularly sharpened her eyes, nose, and tongue on the whetstone of local gossip, swore Mary Bight wasn’t writing letters. She hardly ever mailed or received a one. “Books, books, books. That’s it.”
As spring arrived and Indiana turned its face to the sun, Waverly’s menfolk passed the Thompson house at a stroll, hands in pockets, as if they had nothing really to do and might be available for any odd job, should Mary appear at the front door with its sagging screen and call out to them. Their palms fairly itched as they considered how a hammer and some strong nails could repair the sprung boards on the porch and right the tilting shutters. And, what they could do with a brush and a couple gallons of Grassley’s white paint!
Mary was a good-looking young woman, and the men hoped to (but never did) catch a glimpse of her bending over a laundry basket or trimming the distorted shrubbery, chestnut hair pinned away from her face, lissome arms stretching overhead.
So, she lived among them, almost unseen but very present, when the events began that were fixed in the memories of Waverlians as distinctly as photographs glued to the crackling pages of a family album. Even townsfolk who only heard the story many years later, as it was passed parent to child, could recount some version of the debacle, which had about it the mingled clarity and confusion of a dream.
The townspeople awoke that June Sunday to weather so fine it must have been sent direct from God to encourage churchgoing. Along Mary Bight’s street came the weekly procession of straight-backed ladies done up in corsets and restless men choking in their neckties, all of them in their too-tight Sunday shoes, truly church-bound. But their progress halted at the Thompson cottage, where a growing cluster of citizens gathered, heedless of the church’s nagging bell.
A length of clothesline stretched across Mary’s yard, and pinned to it like miniature bedsheets and waving from the lower branches of the new-leafed trees like starched handkerchiefs were pages and pages and pages covered with Mary’s typing. From outside the yard’s tired fence, the torrent of words blurred grey. Several larking older boys tried to reach over the splintered pickets and grab one of those tantalizing papers, but they were just out of reach.
“Who does she think she is?” stout Mrs. Grassley asked, a sufficiently vague and all-purpose indictment.
“That’s a lot of writing, surely,” said young Tom Cooper, awestruck. The church bell rang insistently, and, out of lifelong habit, they at last responded. For generations the bell had been the town crier as well as its timepiece, even though the bell’s latter role was somewhat supplanted by the ear-piercing whistle of the 12:15 pm train arriving from points west, the 5:30 pm en route to Chicago, and finally the 8:27 pm speeding south, all the way to New Orleans.
On that Sunday, after the opening hymn and before the benediction, a bank of dense clouds rolled across the darkening sky, accompanied by a west wind that scoured the churchyard, sought out the dessicated leaves lodged against untended gravestones, swept them neatly into corners, then scattered them again. The wind slipped through an open church window and danced with the feathers on Mrs. Grassley’s fashionable hat and startled Mr. Grassley awake. And it played with the papers hung in Mary Bight’s yard, teasing them down from the trees and off the clothesline.
When the good folk of Waverly arrived home, a few found one of Mary’s pages skipping across their lawns or wind-plastered to their porch rails, and what would have been a drowsy chicken-and-dumplings afternoon became a scavenger hunt, as older children were sent to find more of the intriguing pages, if they could.
In all, twelve. Their contents mystified the families possessing them. Neighbors compared pages, and the puzzlement deepened. The suggestion quickly spread that those who had pages should bring them to the church that evening, in the hope that, all together, they might make sense. No one entertained the most obvious thought, to return them to Mary herself, the stranger in their midst.
After evening services, they congregated in Fellowship Hall, but soon discovered the random pages were still too random. In fact, reading all of them—in whatever order they attempted, since the pages were not numbered—made no more sense than reading them separately.
In a clear voice, young Evan George read out the paper his family had found. Evan had attended one semester at Indiana University, and the congregation deemed him well prepared for oratory.
Evan’s page started near the end of a sentence. “ . . . the means. But if he had not, would events have unfolded differently? Definitely not, thought those who claimed to know the doctor and his depraved intentions, who recorded his dabbling in the Black Arts. Most people avoided passing his noisome laboratory after dark. They heard frightening nighttime shrieks; the village’s many stray cats had disappeared. A vagrant who helped him move some firmly padlocked chests claimed the laboratory’s shelves held skeletons of small animals, baskets of dark, bitter-smelling herbs and roots, and loathsome things floating in jars. All this so unnerved the poor man that he refused to return for his meager pay.” A murmur from the crowd. “The doctor claimed he engaged in strictly scientific pursuits, but the eerie glow from his laboratory fed doubts. A pale and breathless stranger stopped by the tavern late one November evening and told the publican he’d peeked through the laboratory’s grime-streaked window and seen a green luminescence coil and swirl like mist, until it formed a grinning mask. The doctor spoke to it in an unfamiliar language. Its guttural reply made the . . .”
Mrs. Belden, one of the church’s eldest parishioners, gasped and came close to fainting—whether because of the frightening text, the heat of Fellowship Hall, or the constriction of her implacable corsetry. While several church ladies chafed her wrists and brought cold water, the others decided it best to move on, and Evan George sat down, disappointed.
Postmistress Quaid had left for the church in such a rush that she brought the wrong piece of paper, but she peered over her steel-rimmed glasses and in a pinched voice explained it contained a vile chemical concoction. Her elaborate description evoked sulphurous high school science experiments. She distinctly remembered a “bubbling cauldron” and a list of unsavory ingredients that made her hearers shudder.
Her dark expression prompted uneasy glances at Mrs. Belden, still vigorously fanned by Mrs. Parker. Doc Murray, the pharmacist, said the ingredients Miss Quaid cited were fantastical and that she must have gotten them wrong. Her vehement denials reinforced the muttered notion, repeating through the assembled group like the refrain of some popular song, that someone, somewhere was “up to no good.”
“Pure gibberish,” Doc Murray pronounced and shook his head.
The next page contained only four lines:
midnight sun and again
the wash of strongest light
months pass fleetly by
til Aurora paints the star–specked night.
The reader—the shy clerk Cooper, who harbored a romantic streak—thought it might be the end of a poem, but Grassley declared there was nothing poetic about it. His clerk sank into chastened and accustomed silence.
“Well, it rhymes,” said Mrs. Grassley, puckering her mouth in opposition to her husband.
Grassley snorted. “It ain’t grammatical. Wouldn’t a poet know their grammar?”
The other pages likewise raised unanswerable questions. The group finally laid the matter at their minister’s feet. Rev. Applewood had sat quietly through the recitations, gazing heavenward—or at the stain on the ceiling he’d just noticed, which would require costly repairs to the church roof—pinching his chin thoughtfully.
“What does it mean?” the parishioners asked.
“Is it dangerous?” Mr. Parker refined the question.
“It’s subversive,” said Grassley.
“She frightens me,” said Mrs. Parker, a statement all the weightier because of her family’s unlucky proximity to the author.
Rev. Applewood was a quiet, self-contained man, a plausible vessel for keeping Eternal secrets. Because he had trained at a leading Methodist theological school—Boston or Drew, no one could remember which—he was expected to voice a considered and definite opinion. He sighed.
“It’s a puzzle, all right. We need to know more.” He heard the restless shuffling. His congregation wanted answers, not intellectual shilly-shallying. He quickly went on, “and I think it would be unwise—un-Christian,” he retreated to high ground, “to come to rash conclusions.” This didn’t sit well, either, so he ended with an ambiguous “one way or the other.” Much better. A few people understood this final emendation as laudably even-handed, but most fixated on its delicious hint that something dire remained possible. They went home uneasy, but oddly satisfied.
By the next morning, Mary Bight had taken down all the papers. Meanwhile, a dozen Waverly families laid out the mysterious sheets on their kitchen tables for intensive study. The post office became the central reservoir for growing speculations and overheated reactions, and few patrons went away without dipping from Miss Quaid’s overflowing pool.
One of the twelve papers was especially troublesome. It described an enormous monster, white as ice, with a devil’s cold and malevolent gaze. The monster struck the unfortunate men who encountered it with overwhelming terror, and the certainty it would be nearly impossible to destroy. Two members of Dr. Waylon’s family, which possessed the page, were acutely affected. Johnny Waylon, age eight, had screaming nightmares. Mrs. Waylon “heard things” in the night and, between comforting Johnny and repeatedly bolting out of bed to check the house’s previously unused door locks and window latches, barely slept four nights running.
“Take that thing down to Rev. Applewood,” she said to her husband Thursday at dinnertime, pointing a shaking finger at the paper. “I don’t want it in the house.” He promised to do so first thing in the morning, but just as the Waylons prepared for bed, a man pounded on the back door and pleaded with the doctor to hitch up his horse and hurry out to the farm to help his wife, struggling with a difficult labor. Dr. Waylon did not arrive home until nearly noon the next day. Exhausted, he lay down to rest while his wife cooked his lunch.
A shriek from the kitchen woke him, and he rushed in to find Mrs. Waylon bent over a bowl of potatoes, blood dripping from a cut on her hand, staining the white slices. He whipped out his handkerchief and fashioned a tourniquet. They sensed movement in the doorway and turned. The menacing page had blown off the hall table and lay on the floor, fluttering lightly.
Mrs. Waylon shrieked again, and her husband had no choice but to carry that page to Rev. Applewood as soon as he had properly bandaged her wound.
The story of the papery attack on Mrs. Waylon flew around town as fast as Johnny Waylon could run. Shortly thereafter, Rev. Applewood possessed all dozen riddle-pages. Mr. Parker rushed to buy tickets for his wife and children on the 5:30 Chicago-bound train, penning a short letter for her to take to his sister, explaining the precipitate visit.
The following Sunday, when the Methodist Church’s bell summoned the town, many congregants looked uneasy as they slipped into their familiar pews, their usual good humor and benevolent nods set aside. Rev. Applewood chose as his text, Joshua 1:9, “Be not afraid.”
During the week he had felt the blood quickening in the townspeople’s veins. “Do not let your imaginations take control of you, just because of a few puzzling sheets of paper,” he said. But his warning went unheeded, and that night, in the shadows of the trees across from the Thompson cottage, two or three men gathered, watching for they knew not what.
On Monday, the event the town had vaguely expected became all too real. Helen Jackson found her three young children behind the barn, vomiting clotted blood and moaning “as if possessed,” a neighbor said. Desperate, Mrs. Jackson sent for Dr. Waylon, but he was several miles outside town, tending a farmhand whose horse had kicked him in the chest. The story of the poisoned children reached every corner of the nerve-wracked town before Dr. Waylon could return, apparently just in time.
As ever, good news travels at leisure, while bad news takes the express, and only several hours later did everyone who had heard about the poisoning learn about the children’s recovery, time enough for the idea that confirmed their prejudices to become rooted in many minds, free of discordant facts.
That night, eight or ten men loitered outside old Mr. Thompson’s house, and they carried guns. They’d brought out two or three hunting rifles, Grassley’s father’s Spencer carbine, and several revolvers not loaded for decades and more likely to explode in their owners’ hands than to hit any target. The small guns stuck ostentatiously from the belts of men lucky to be sober. They stared at Mary’s night-blackened house, alert to every noise, but saw and heard nothing.
Rev. Applewood might not be a man to act precipitously, but he could detect the brimstone odor of moral danger. He sniffed it now. He called on Waverly’s leaders: Dr. Waylon, attorney Horace Silpatt, who was also the town’s mayor, and Doc Murray, the pharmacist—the town’s most respected and level-headed men, men with “a sense of consequences,” he said to Mrs. Applewood. “And we need Miss Byron’s good sense. She can calm the children.”
Janel Byron, Waverly’s schoolteacher, had spent the last month of the school year in St. Louis, attending her mother’s final illness. They expected her back in Waverly on the 12:15, and when the train clamored into the station screeching its brakes and whuffing steam, the four men stood silently waiting.
“I didn’t expect such a prestigious welcoming committee,” she greeted them.
“We surely would not descend on you in this way, out of consideration for your loss,” the Reverend said, “if it weren’t absolutely necessary.”
Questions flew to the woman’s lips, but before she could ask them, Dr. Waylon said, “This is unpardonably rude, but can you come with us now, to the church?”
“Now?” Miss Byron looked around the platform for her luggage. She gave a young man leaning against the station wall a dime to carry her bags the several blocks to her rooming house. On the walk to Rev. Applewood’s office, the men condoled with her by describing in detail the agonizing deaths of their own parents.
They’d soon told the whole tale—the mysterious pages, the growing anxiety, the odd events that fed the fearmongrels. And, in the midst of everything, Mary Bight, secluded, unaware, and going about her work, whatever it was.
“Let me see the pages.” The men sat silently as she studied them. The church bell chimed one o’clock. Miss Byron looked up.
“Well?” A chord of voices.
“First we must talk to Mary Bight.” Miss Byron’s obvious suggestion was a chink of light that immediately brought them to their feet.
“We’ve meant to do that, but,” Rev. Applewood reddened, “we don’t really know her, and we thought it would go better with you there.”
“And the situation has gotten worse so quickly,” said Mayor Silpatt.
“We’ll go now.” Miss Byron said.
If Mary was surprised to see Waverly’s five leading citizens on her sagging front porch, she did not reveal it, and promptly invited them inside. Unlike the house’s shabby exterior, the inside, though tight on space, was clean and orderly. True, boxes and piles of books outnumbered pieces of furniture, but even without knowing the volumes’ contents the visitors could see there was method to their arrangement. By the window sat the typewriter that punctuated Mrs. Parker’s days, flanked by a stack of clean paper on the left and typed sheets on the right. Less than an hour later, Mary’s visitors departed.
At six-thirty that evening, the church bell’s urgent summons boosted husbands out of their chairs to put on their coats and prompted wives to set aside the dish-washing, dry their hands, and gather the children. Only an urgent matter would call them out at this unusual hour, and they guessed what it was.
The townspeople approached the church afraid to learn what new depredations might have been revealed that day and keen to hear about them. They filled the sanctuary quickly and quietly, eyes fixed on the five town leaders who sat in front of the altar, facing them.
Rev. Applewood stepped to the lectern. “Dear friends, a pall of fear and confusion has lain over our town these last days. I know certain strange events and coincidences have alarmed many of you.” His audience stirred on the uncushioned pews, alert, backs straight, eyes on him. “Some rather wild speculations have circulated. And some of you believe these rumors justify strong actions.” Nods and mutterings of assent.
“I’ve called you here tonight with great relief, because we can finally put these matters to rest.” He told them how he and the others had visited Mary Bight that day. “She made a good impression on all of us. She’s bright, studious, and completely absorbed in her work, as we’ve all recognized.”
“The Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape,” a rumbling voice called out from the back of the sanctuary.
Rev. Applewood held out his arms in a mollifying gesture. “We are very, very far from needing to think along those lines,” he said. “I’d like Miss Byron to explain.”
“When these gentlemen showed me the twelve sheets today,” the schoolteacher said, “I observed a theme—a thread—among them. A thread related to their purpose, not their content.” The audience looked wary. “When we spoke with Miss Bight, we found my supposition was correct.
“Far from being alarming or dangerous, these are pages of a scholarly work. Miss Bight recently received her doctoral degree in English literature and is writing a textbook exploring many of its masterworks.”
“What about my page—the chemistry problem? That’s no literature,” Miss Quaid interrupted.
“I’m surprised no one recognized it,” Miss Byron said and turned to Doc Murray, who stood.
“I said the ingredients sounded odd, and I couldn’t understand the ‘Hell broth boil and bubble,’ that Miss Quaid recalled for us. But today when I saw the actual paper,” he paused, “it’s Shakespeare! We read it in high school!”
The crowd shifted in their seats. “Many of you surely remember the three witches who foretold Macbeth’s fate,” Miss Byron said. “‘Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and caldron bubble?’” She looked at them expectantly. “Miss Quaid’s paper had a fragment of that speech. And, yes, the witches’ cauldron did contain odd ingredients, like ‘eye of newt and toe of frog.’”
Miss Quaid fumed. Mrs. Grassley jabbed her husband with her sharp elbow. “You should of got that,” she muttered.
Unconsciously clutching her bandaged hand, Mrs. Waylon asked, “What about the white devil?”
“Part of a summary of Melville’s Moby Dick,” Miss Byron said. “The Great White Whale.”
“But, my hand?” she asked in a weak voice and held it up.
“I’m sorry, my dear.” Her husband smiled gently. “I’m afraid you are somewhat prone to household accidents.” Before she could take offense, he added, “It’s one of the chief reasons I’m glad I’m a physician.” The audience chuckled, and she blushed, but returned the smile.
“The man in the laboratory?” someone inquired, cobwebs of uncertainty still clinging to him.
“That page describes a type of story that uses science to give its plot a base of plausibility, then erects on it a most unscientific edifice. You may have read or heard about Robert Louis Stevenson’s new story, ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ or remember Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”
Like balloons losing their air, the townspeople gradually slumped. Their heads sank further with each benign explanation.
“But why did she hang those papers outdoors like that?” Miss Quaid launched a flanking attack.
Rev. Applewood returned to the lectern. “In a way, she had the same problem we did. She’d neglected to number the pages. She went shopping on Saturday, and a sudden thunderstorm came up. The wind through the open window blew a good many of her papers onto the floor and hopelessly scrambled them. She didn’t have room to lay them out inside the house and had the idea of hanging them up so she could see them all and put them back in order. Which, in fact, she did.”
“What about the Jackson children?”
“Ah,” said Rev. Applewood. “That was unfortunate. But it had nothing to do with Mary.”
Dr. Waylon spoke up. “The children spent the afternoon climbing in their neighbor’s cherry trees. They ate too much fruit, plain and simple. Nothing supernatural about it.” A few people nodded, having had children of their own.
After a prolonged silence, a woman’s peevish voice asked, “Why don’t she take better care of that place?” Everyone burst out laughing, including Rev. Applewood.
The mayor spoke up. “Mary is renting the Thompson house for a few months, just until she finishes her book. Meanwhile, Sarah and Hiram Thompson took some of the old man’s money—yes, he had quite a hoard, believe it or not—and went to Europe.” The townspeople shook their heads. “When they return to Indianapolis, they’ll see about the house.”
“By the way,” Rev. Applewood said, “Mary did number the pages, once they were all in order. She realized some were missing and was pleased to get them back.”
There were no more questions, and soon the church emptied, the people seemingly embarrassed to have needed such an explanation.
“Mrs. Parker’s idea, the trip to Chicago,” Parker said to the Grassleys, as they walked toward home. “I knew that young woman wasn’t a witch.”
“Of course not,” sighed Mrs. Grassley and glared at her husband.
“Hmph,” said Grassley, muttering, “‘eye of newt.’ Hmph.” He hoped no one remembered he’d suggested the guns.
Miss Quaid, head held high, turned off at the next corner. “I just can’t believe how gullible people are, letting themselves get carried away like that,” she said.
Behind closed doors that night, the townspeople gradually came to accept this alternate and benign set of realities. A lot of conversations that started out talking about “protecting my family” and “can’t be too careful” ended up with “benefit of the doubt” and “jumping to conclusions,” as well as “sorry.” The men who’d held the guns said little, but their hands trembled. Just one more step, which the night before had seemed almost inevitable, and they would have fallen into an abyss of error and regret.
Over time, the people of Waverly drew upon this lesson again and again, as they confronted new challenges to their established ways—the prejudices sparked by immigration, the hatreds born of wars, the meanness of the Depression, and all the other upheavals in small town life whose beginning they dated to the arrival of the railroad, so many years before.
On the morning after the community meeting, Mary Bight opened her front door to find a bouquet of garden flowers, two pies, and a loaf of fresh-baked bread. Mid-morning, a half-dozen men carrying tools strode up her walk. By Sunday, the porch floor was secure, the shutters straight, and, most surprising of all, Grassley had donated several gallons of white paint that the men put to good use. She’d learned a lesson, too, and regularly appeared at church and took time to know her neighbors.
As I grew up, I often heard this story from Waverly’s old-timers. And I know that Johnny Waylon, my grandfather, lived its lessons throughout his own generous life. Still, whenever he told it, I could hear, just dusting his dry voice, a small boy’s disappointment that the most exciting event of his childhood had evaporated like a mysterious green mist.
(photo: brunifia, Creative Commons license)