~A Disturbance In The Waters Of Grace~
Life doesn't care if you die on Christmas, New Years day or even your Birthday. Nor does it care how you die. It's a harsh reality that's as real today as it was forty-two years ago. But back then, happiness and security were things I took for granted in my carefree youth. We're a bunch of fragile eggs on a crazy planet but we've got to press on and get as much out of living as we can and not succumb to fear. OK, so I'll admit it, I still get nervous sometimes, especially out on the road.
Cruise north down route 84 to Maplecrest and breathe in the warm spring air, sooner or later you'll get a big whiff of oil emanating from the eighteen-wheeler roaring past you while it's shaking your car like a toy rattle. It's one of the characteristics of a major highway that can fray your nerves. Fortunately, I'm comforted by the fact that I live on a quiet block with only two houses. The white one with the big maple tree on the right hand side is mine. I'm married with no children. Would I call it a peaceful location? Yeah, but unfortunately dark secrets still linger here as a permanent scar on the forearm of this town like a tattoo. Shame clings to the brow of anyone here with a knowledge of town folklore. It's a legacy some would like to forget. As a result, they prefer to paint a good image to outsiders.
I inherited my home from a loving father. If you gaze out my back door there's a fire pit that helps keep the gnats away in summer. Further back, a footpath with knee-high undergrowth overlooks the stream.
As for the house next door, If walls could talk in there I'd rather not listen.
It's funny how events from years prior can stick inside your noggin for so long and still leave its impression on you so long after the fact. Jim and Donna, the new owners, invited us over for coffee. My wife accepted the invitation even though she knew I'd be reluctant to go. Walking to the
front door, a familiar chill ran through my bones.
Jim, a fire lieutenant, accustomed to carrying oxygen tanks, stood in front of me with wide rugged shoulders. His big outstretched muscular hand felt like a vice grip.
"Hello neighbors, welcome to our humble abode. I imagine you've been here once or twice before?"
"It's been awhile." I replied.
Donna who taught 3rd grade English, invited us into the living room where a brand new couch awaited. Her elderly mom Peggy had also moved in. Right away her sense of humor became apparent.
"Hello honey, I just fixed you up some coffee."
"Oh, thank you very much Peggy."
"No problem, oh by the way, I just lost one of my false teeth so if you hear any clanking in your glass let me know."
Donna and Peggy always wanted to live in a setting such as this being they have relatives they visit in Tennessee. Donna finally convinced Jim to tackle the country aspect of living when they saw the house up for sale.
Five minutes into our conversation, Jim expressed interest in any previous owners of the house or history of the area. At that point my demeanor changed slightly giving away my hesitancy.
"Uh oh," Donna said, "I take it there's something we should know about?"
"Well," I said, "There is something that happened here when I was young. Now that your permanent residents, it might be best for me to tell you instead of someone else."
"OK," Donna said. "I guess there's bound to be skeletons in the closet of any old home like this, tell us..."
I decided then to recount the story from the beginning. One of tragedy, of secrets, and of a family I would never forget. Right in the very house they once lived.
Luke and Nancy lived in here with their two daughters Christine and her younger sister Emily. I got along very well with both children. At times, we may have overextended our familiarity with the environment around us, but we never got lost. Nancy always taught both girls to help her out whenever they could. We were normal kids who played hide and go seek, laughed when we rode bicycles, and excitedly rushed to the same porch when it rained. Although we were warned of the various animals around, they never bothered us.
One night with a sky full of stars that surrounded a full moon, I took my dog Pal, a golden retriever, for his usual walk down the path behind our house. I wore the whistle around my neck my father always made me take in cases of emergency. ("If anything happens, blow that whistle hard boy!") Half-way down the path I heard a disquieting voice come from the stream. About forty feet away I could see the girl's father Luke, sitting on a large flat rock with a small lantern close to his right. He looked devastated while teetering back and forth. I carefully pointed my flashlight down keeping it undetected. Pal let out a light bark but I kept him quiet long enough to decipher Luke's words.
"From my mother's womb thou art...God, depart not from me for tribulation is near: For there is none to help me.
As I listened, his strained, grief-stricken voice repeated various scripture from a bible he held next to the light. Feeling uneasy, I silently crept with feet like feathers in the opposite direction nudging Pal with me. I never mentioned it to my parents when I went back into the house. Fear prevented me from saying anything. I wanted to put it out of my mind.
The following day, I saw Christine sitting up straight and firm on their picnic bench outside. Before I could go over, a grim Luke walked out the back door with a shovel, a bucket, and a hammer hanging from the loop of his pants. Without saying a word he passed Christine for the woods on the side of their yard. From our house as well as the street out front, the trees block our view of that particular area in warmer seasons. I hesitated going over finally deciding not to.
For two hours every day Luke marched back and forth like a robot from the side of the house to the woods with a filled wheelbarrow. He'd hammer, then occasionally, I could see him at the stream filling buckets of water. My dad knew a guy named Charlie at the time who said he overheard a delivery order from Luke at the hardware store up in Pleasant Valley for cement and sandbags. My father rarely talked to Luke much, so he never questioned him about it or mentioned it to anyone. Each night though during that daily walk, I would hear Luke's somber voice reciting verses at that same flat rock by the water.
Soon, the banging noises stopped along with all the activity. Somewhere around that time we noticed something else: A terrible smell, more perceptible during a light breeze coming from the direction of Luke's project. I searched the entire enclosure of our yard looking for a dead varmint with Pal, but found nothing.
Subsequently, I noticed Christine's attitude changed a lot. "We have to play over here." She would say. "Come on, lets ride our bikes down that way." It was like their property became guarded to the point where it was off limits to kids.
One afternoon, I joined my father in stacking wood in our backyard. We could overhear Luke going off on a tirade at Nancy. The words of his outburst were vague but out of the blue he stormed out the back door with his hands up to his head looking furious. A few seconds later Nancy came out looking really upset herself. She snatched some shirts off the clothesline then walked back in. A little while later, she drove away with the girls. Occasionally, I would notice Luke peeping his head out from behind a tree looking over our way as though he were waiting for us to leave.
I don't recall how much time elapsed after that day but one morning a hearse arrived in front of the house. Luke's elderly Mother, living with them at the time died.
"That's where the smell came from dad!" I said. I was naive but I could see a look on my dad's face. He wouldn't say, but I knew there was something on his mind.
"Yeah, guess so."
~The Mother ~
The days soon grew chilly. Little by little we could see a better glimpse of the area where Luke did all that work. He constructed what turned out to be a tiny cement building. An oval shape completed the top of its wooden door with two crosses at each side of the front edges of the building itself. A window bore into its left side. The whole thing looked eerie me. My parents didn't really have much to say about it. Nevertheless, I could see the wheels turning in my fathers head whenever he looked that way. Years later I would find out information on Luke and on his mother too.
It was well known in these parts that Luke's mother was the daughter of a Minister who gave religious ceremonies when the weather permitted down at an open area near the stream. They no longer held worship in their own church due to a fire that burned it down. People were prayed over as well as ceremoniously dipped in the water in the belief that their sins would be washed away by God's grace. Others were simply baptized. This was all part of a spring/summer tradition that went back to the mid 1800's.
Not everyone wanted to be a part of it though. Strange things were going on down there that were never really investigated. Word was, the minister led some kind of religious cult that performed strange rituals. Luke's mom played a role somehow, though no ones really sure in what capacity. Details about certain events are sketchy. More then once lights were seen down there accompanied by some kind of weird chanting. Traces of blood were found on some of the rocks near the water too. But the main reason no one will speak about it today is because they all know about the deaths. They're aware of the children who for no explainable reason suddenly went "missing." There are a limited number of gravestones that indicate their names in the graveyard. It's possible some were buried in unmarked graves so the parents wouldn't be associated with the shame of a child created or overcome by demons.
Back then, medications or any type of technology hardly existed. In their already corrupted minds, deformed children suffered from exposure to the devil. If the afflictions of a major sickness or disease spread to adults, it's possible exorcisms or blood lettings were performed in the belief that it would expunge the bad spirits. Lack of education or brain washing may have accounted for a good deal of their behavior. There are many in this town that have descended from ancestors that were a part of this group and possibly many before it.
When Luke was young, his father was found dead in the same area the rituals occurred. Some wondered if maybe he held opposition to their methods and died as a result. Nearby, Luke began attending the new Holy Mary Church every Sunday at the insistence of his mother who attended with him. By all accounts, she always displayed a nervous or anxious behavior. Each night she would pray with him asking the Lord to forgive all his sins. She wanted a God-fearing, devoted son. That way, when the Lord summoned him, he could enter paradise with little remorse. At times though when Luke would enter school, teachers noticed his face was puffy red. Quiet most of the time, he became withdrawn. This gave credibility to the rumors that Luke's mom abused him. Many knew she came from a disreputable background.
~ Nancy ~
Nancy, Luke's wife, displayed all the characteristics of being a nice mature woman with one idiosyncrasy, a gift for gab. Yet, overall, her tongue wagging would never confirm anything about Luke's background or his mother's past that she knew of. Even though religious, she wasn't as devoted as Luke or his mom and this would often result in some rift between them. Years before Luke, She experienced her troubles with men. During her first marriage she learned of her husband's affair which produced a child. As a result, after their divorce she developed a deep seated distrust for men. When she met Luke, she assumed his spiritual devotion would prevent any issues of that nature. However, the real thorn in her side became his mother, a woman she hated big time.
Because of her, they needed to pray those creepy prayers three times a day. In Nancy's own words, "They sounded wrong somehow; like the meanings were misconstrued from the original text." The old woman became much more difficult to tolerate because of her religious commitment and views on bringing up the children. On top of that, Alzheimer's had now become an issue causing a major loss of memory and other concerns. As a result, Nancy felt stressed out. She found herself venting to anyone who would listen. Unfortunately for her, many did.
When detectives showed up to the house, that's when things changed, not only for us, but also the entire town! At first, we thought they were businessman. Then a police car showed up. A few minutes later, Luke and Nancy sat in the backseat of the detectives car, headed to the precinct for questioning.
The next day, a friend of my dads knocked on our door with shocking news. Luke's mom died of rat poison! Evidently, the body had been there
awhile before anyone was informed. When the recovery crew from the funeral home showed up, they found her wrapped in some kind of plastic in the basement. Police were now looking at the two as murderers!
The autopsy report eventually determined that although the old woman could have died of natural causes, poison was indeed the determining factor in her death. Now the word spread through town. Did Nancy finally
flip out or did Luke hate seeing his mother deteriorate in such a way, ending her life? The locals bandied about their opinions consumed with intrigue.
At the police station, Both became unresponsive as they sat in separate rooms. At one point Luke became so distraught he had to rest alone to recover. Detectives were leaning towards Nancy as the murderer. Even though she was the one who made the call, she carried the brunt of stress and frustration while caring for an elderly woman whose mind was becoming debilitated. They asked us a lot of questions but we didn't want to say much. They were still our neighbors. If they turned out innocent, we didn't want any backlash. Locals questioned by detectives sung like a choir in their effort to spill the beans on Nancy's hate for the old woman, describing conversations verbatim at Nancy's expense. But detectives weren't jumping the gun on this one. Their experience taught them that being patient aside from being inquisitive had its merits.
I know this because in time, I became acquainted with Mark Carson, one of the detectives. Looking back, he said immediately that little stubborn voice inside his brain started talking. Mark worked the crimes unit for ten years before being assigned to this case. His job involved the study of crime scenes; dealing with forensic pathologists and photographers; talking to witnesses; and asking a lot of questions.
He knew criminals often had primary, secondary and tertiary motives for committing crimes. In the interrogation room, Luke showed signs of psychosis. That was a possible motive. Yet studying Luke's history, he could find no conflicts, sensitivities, or ongoing building issues. There were no reactive or predatory motives that he could make out, although motiveless crimes were always probable. Also, the victim had no recent bank or credit card activity. After talking to the appointed lawyers and a judge, Mark began asking more questions. But not to Luke and Nancy.
It was around eight in the morning when Luke's older daughter Christine was brought in for questioning. She sat in the chair next to Mark and tears started to run down her face almost immediately.
"Did you love your grandma Christine?"
"Yes" she said softly.
"That's why your so sad huh"
Mark continued with caution. "Christine, I need to ask you a really important question. Was there ever a time when your mother did anything to your grandmother?"
"No," She said, "but sometimes..."
At this point Christine broke down and couldn't stop sobbing. It took a couple of minutes before Mark could ask her more questions.
"Can you tell me why you’re crying?"
She caught her breath and said, "Sometimes my father would yell at my mother and hit her."
"Your father? Why?"
"He would just hit her and say something from the bible. Then he'd start to cry and go to grandma."
Mark questioned Christine for about another twenty minutes keeping in mind Luke's possible disorder. After he was done, he was starting to wonder if Nancy really did kill the old woman. If Luke hit her, then why? Was he just crazy or was he furious at her for something she did? His head was filled with questions. Then the last person he would interview that day would walk in.
Emily wore her brand new sneakers and a brand new sweater with a pattern of panda bears on them. She sat down with a confused look and began answering each question she was asked.
"You feel bad about your grandma, don't you?" Mark asked.
"Uh huh." said Emily.
"And did you help take care of her?"
"Um...yeah, I would help mommy feed her.”
"Oh, and what kind of things would you feed her?" Mark asked.
"Umm...I would put sugar on her cereal sometimes,"
Mark leaned forward in his chair, "Did you do that when mommy was there?"
"And did mommy give you the sugar?"
"Yeah...but one time...I umm...made sure that Grandma got vitamin cheese on her pusketti."
Now mark's attention focused on Emily's every word and gesture as he continued asking her questions. Along with the poison found in the woman's stomach, the medical examiner mentioned pasta in his lab report.
"What kind of cheese was it Emily, was it grated cheese?
"I guess so, it has vitamins in it."
"And did mommy give you the cheese to give to grandma--Mark asked, almost ready to sprint from the room.
"Umm, no, she went outside to look for Christine." Emily said this while gesturing with her hand.
"And did you tell her you put the cheese on Grandma’s spaghetti?"
Mark was becoming a little more confused, but continued down the same line of questioning hoping for a clue.
"OK Emily, now I need to ask you a really important question. Where did you get the cheese from--did mommy leave it out for you?"
"Well, Um, there was stuff on the table, but I got it from under the sink."
"And why did you get it from there?" Mark asked. "Did mommy or daddy tell you to use it?"
"Um, no but I knew it was good for grandma."
"And why did you think that?"
"Because one day mommy was leaving some of it out for the animals and I wanted to know why and she said...um...she said, it was just vitamins and not to worry about it."
"Did you take it out with your hands?" asked Mark.
"I used a spoon and put it on her pusketti that was sitting on the table and brought it all to grandma so I could help out mommy. She saw that I brought the dish to her and said, oh good girl."
"And did mommy feed it to grandma?"
"No, Christine did."
"And Christine didn't know it was you who put the cheese with the vitamins in it on grandma's spaghetti did she?"
"Nope, she just took the spoon and put it in the water in the sink"... is mommy and daddy in trouble?"
"No," Mark replied, "Not anymore."
After Emily left the room, she rejoined her parents. They were in shock when they learned the truth. Later, Mark asked Nancy if she wanted to press any charges against Luke for battery but she declined. After going home, Luke couldn't get over the death of his mother. He would go out to that building for hours. He now knew that the sweetest little angel on earth poisoned his mother. His thoughts must have tormented him to no end. At the rock where he usually sat at night, I could hear him during my walk with Pal. He would cry out in that haunting voice--God, why have you forsaken me? God what have I done to you?
Then one morning, while my father walked by the cold water, he
discovered Luke floating facedown. His shirt hooked itself on a large tree limb, preventing him from sinking. As ripples flowed around his body, lines of blood residue dashed across rocks around him. Silent, lifeless; his figure hover as if caught between worlds awaiting judgment. His wrists revealed gaping wounds from a knife found on the rock he always sat on along with a note that said:
"Grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God has blessed thee forever."
Later the police went to the building where he spent so much of his time. Before they even broke open the door, they noticed the odor. Inside they discovered a church-like room with a shrine to his mother. Pictures, mementos, candles with blackened wicks, her favorite bible, all lay on a large altar-like table. Neatly folded on a bed, a quilted blanket with the words--Home is where the heart is, sit on top of a pillow.
In a conversation with Mark Carson, my dad discovered that Luke kept his mother's body there at least 6 days after her death, confirming his suspicions. They determined this through three things: The smell, the condition of the body upon autopsy and certain flies that were found on the bed. My father served on the police force in another county and recognized the horrible sweet smell of a corpse. If you ask any detective or cop who has ever smelled it before, they'll tell you it's something you never forget. It begins around the third day of death when the body is exposed or not sealed.
As it turned out, Luke was so attached to his mother he refused to let her go even though deceased. Nancy said he put her out there late one night when he knew no one would be awake. He always ran to his mother whenever things got too rough, so by placing her on the bed, it must have become some sort of sanctuary, or mausoleum he could go to for comfort. How long he expected to keep her there no one knows. When the smell became too noticeable, Nancy compelled Luke to call the authorities which probably upset him deeply. She also knew children, by nature, dripped with curiosity. She couldn't take the chance that we might get in there one day. Eventually, she made the call. The stench must have affected Luke, but the effects of his mental state probably sent his mind into a spin when he discovered his mother dead. I imagine he may have worn something over his face.
Mark told my dad when they did their first search of the house they found the box of poison under the sink. Nancy was using it to kill some varmints getting into her vegetable garden. More then likely, before anyone arrived from the funeral home, Luke put the woman--by then wrapped in plastic--in the basement when no one knew, which might account for his peeping around trees. He wanted his mother's shrine to be kept private. I guess he just couldn't acclimate himself to her absence which finally broke him down. The knife he used had his prints on it.
~Words of a Poet~
Ultimately, Nancy had lots of grief to go through with two girls to bring up by herself. My parents tried to help her any way they could. Years later, before my mother died, she told me she used to talk to Nancy a lot following Luke's death. One thing Nancy mentioned was how hard it was for them to adjust to being by themselves in the house. "Prayer and poetry," she insisted, helped her get through the pain. One poem she admired came from a poet named TIMagination. Though short, it held a
metaphorical meaning for her. It was called Red Wing Epilogue.
I believe it went:
There, where rills and foliage meet and tranquil waters glide,
A willing robin's tree top song has calmed my inner tides.
There, my monthly solitude from his hymns of noble praise,
Benefits my dreary soul to bring forth better days.
Could it be this shared high-tune is of bereft or pain?
A love lost; hence, a sad lament for angel’s wings now gained?
Sadly, though, in autumns end and winter's chilling greet,
My stay is shorter then I'd like; my footfalls must retreat.
Sing, oh robin, sing once more before the cold wind blows,
Alas, in my departing shall remain your afterglow.
Ultimately, they tore down the building, but something Nancy said to my mom really impacted her. Nancy recalled: "I remember standing over there one day after Luke died." I saw ghostly figures with their hands folded in prayer standing at its front with their heads down. Among them were
downtrodden children, scantily dressed. When I glanced at the side window I could just make out the face of Luke's mother staring at me. Seconds later, the face moved toward the crowd outside on the right with Luke following behind. Instantly, they all vanished with the exception of one little girl who looked my way. She pointed toward the stream before disappearing herself. I froze in fear, gliding spellbound back to the house. Every step, an eternity.
"I know that there's a God. I may not have been as devout as Luke but my parents always taught me to believe that we're never alone. At times though, I go to bed and I get scared. I hate waking in the middle of the night because that's when the demons creep in the most. At the slightest sound I freeze because somewhere in the back of my mind there's a man and an old woman waiting for me. Within those thoughts I always hear the first few words of that John Lennon song that seems to pop up every now and then like an omen: Imagine there's no heaven...above us only skies...."
Nancy eventually moved into a small apartment near her brother in New York. A place populated with plenty of people, away from the rural life. As for the girls, Christine sent me a postcard from San Francisco four years ago.
"I couldn't get you off my mind these last couple of days." It read. "Everything is fine with us and we'll see you again some bright sunny day. Hope you and the parents are doing fine. Love Christine."
After I finally finished telling my story to Donna, Jim, and Peggy; I could see the look on their faces. "It's funny you mentioned the part about a man waiting." Jim said. "I just mentioned to Donna last night that I thought I heard the voice of a man in one of the rooms upstairs. It looks like we have a lot to look forward to." As Jim said this, I could see the--what have we gotten ourselves into--smirk on his face. We chatted more about the house, the town and anything else we could think of. I think in doing so I allayed any doubts or fears they had about their new home as best I could. "I plan on refinishing the entire house from top to bottom as time goes on." Jim said. "Maybe we can relocate some ghosts while we're at it."
Finally, it was time to go. Leaving, my wife and I could see that we were going to have some really good neighbors--A relief to both of us. Walking slowly with her cane, Peggy grabbed me by the arm and with a motherly-type tone in her voice said: "Now make sure you come back here tomorrow dear, we're having spaghetti. You wouldn't want to miss it would you?"
"No," I said with a smile, "As long as you keep the grated cheese under the sink, I wouldn't miss it for the world."
This story is dedicated to the great author Helena Parris whose guidance and inspiration helped me "Get it right."
Psalms 45:2 Grace is poured into thy lips: Therefore, God hath blessed me forever.
Wisdom 1,13 Because God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story.