After the Raid

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

After a young woman's father is killed by Confederate raiders, she faces a hard choice between honoring her father's legacy and seeking revenge.

(This story is tied to my Civil War horror novel A Fine LIkeness, although you don’t have to read that book to understand or enjoy the story. It recounts an important scene of the novel from a different point of view, focusing on a character who, while pivotal, is only in the novel briefly. It looks at the consequences of our actions and how they can ripple out in unexpected ways. The story appears in my collection The Rat Killer and other Weird War Tales)

 

 

AFTER THE RAID

 

The bushwhackers had left. Helena Schmidt had lain weeping over her father’s body in the front yard until the neighbors came. They took their time, eager to help but not wanting to run into the Confederate raiders who had shot her father. When they finally did arrive they made sympathetic noises. The men carried Lars Schmidt up the three steps of the porch, through the front door, and into the dining room where they laid him out on the table, wrapping him in a sheet until the undertaker could be called. The women had led Helena away.

That had been in the morning. Now it was night. The undertaker had come, declared the obvious, made it official by filling out a form, and took her father’s body to the church until it could be buried. The men had all gone back to their shops and fields. The women Helena had to send away. Several offered to stay the night. Those who had rooms left vacant by their sons going off to war offered them to her. It took some time to make them understand that she wanted to stay in her own house and that she wanted to be alone. They left shaking their heads.

“Lars was such a quiet soul,” they said. “Never spoke out against anybody. Why would the rebels want to kill him?”

Yes, why? Father never concerned himself about politics. While a Unionist and an abolitionist, he was not outspoken with his views. Being lame in one leg he wasn’t part of Columbia’s Union militia. He lived a life of quiet study, interacting with the public only through his photographic studio.

There had been six of them. They wore Union uniforms and flourished Union passes but Helena was suspicious from the start. They were too young, too cocky, too well-armed. They posed for a photograph and then gunned Father down.

As Helena sat benumbed in the study, her gaze wandered over her father’s library—hundreds of books in half a dozen languages on all matters of the occult. Spiritism, theosophy, Gnostic cosmology, Hermeticism, geomancy.

Was this why they targeted him? The house stood close to the edge of town. It was dangerous for the bushwhackers to come here, and while they often targeted German civilians, they could have easily gone after those who lived in more isolated farms and vineyards. They hadn’t wanted to kill a German; they had wanted to kill Lars Schmidt, and the only thing that distinguished him was his study of the occult. Yet few knew of his interests. It wasn’t the sort of thing the staid civilians of Columbia would easily accept.

The bushwhackers hadn’t touched her. “Cavaliers of the brush” these bandits called themselves, teenaged boys who read too many Arthurian romances and felt they were being chivalrous if they gunned an innocent man down in front of his daughter’s eyes but didn’t hurt the girl.

One of them had tried, though, when she called down the curse.

It was that wild-looking one, the one who had examined Father’s library with knowing eyes. He knew that the words she’d used were a real curse and not some countrywoman’s mumbo-jumbo. He’d leveled his pistol at her and got punched by one of the others.

“We don’t make war on womenfolk!” the other one had said.

“Oh, but you have,” she whispered as she sat in her father’s study. “And I will make war on you.”

What the wild-looking one didn’t know was that she had no Power. Sometimes it is passed through the bloodline and sometimes it is not. Father had it, but his only child was a normal woman.

So the curse was nothing except words and spite. All it could do was make them nervous, not make them suffer. And they needed to suffer. She needed to make the curse real. The local militia captain had promised he would hunt them down but even if he was successful that wasn’t enough. Death wasn’t enough. Father had told her enough about death for her to know that it was nothing to fear.

Being raised by an occultist she knew many things that others only guessed at. Life lessons had a deeper meaning. When she was eight and Father caught her filching penny sweets from the local shop he didn’t smack her bottom. Instead he sat her down and explained why that was wrong.

“All spirits have a frequency, child, like the tones on a musical scale. Those that are more pure have a higher frequency, and inhabit a bright place they share with all the greatest spirits of the ages. Those who steal, who kill, who live lives of greed and vituperation, those have low frequencies. They inhabit a dark place trapped with dirty spirits of their own kind.”

“Is Mother in the bright place?” she had asked. Mother had died the year before.

“Yes, child,” Father replied with a smile. “When I speak with her she tells me the most amazing things. We must live purely, so that when we pass from this world to the next we will be with her forever.”

Helena had walked back to the store alone and tearfully confessed to the shopkeeper, returning the candy and doing chores to pay for those she’d already eaten.

Now Helena sat alone in Father’s study. He and Mother were together in that place. Of that she was sure. He had always been a good man, a pure man. Honest and kind.

So why kill him? That’s the question that burned in her mind. Did he know something the rebels wanted to hide?

Helena sat alone for a long time, her thoughts numb and her eyes unfocused.

She felt him before she saw him. One moment she was alone and the next she knew he was there.

She looked up. Something was materializing in the corner of the room.

Helena wasn’t afraid. It was Father, so why should she be?

The faint outline of the portly man whom she had admired and loved all her life grew clearer. When he spoke his lips didn’t move and he made no sound anyone but she could have heard.

Don’t cry, Helena.

Helena tried not to.

“Are…are you with Mother? Are you in the bright place?” she managed to ask.

She slipped back to what she had called it as a child. She knew the occult terms for it—the Aetherial Plane, Goloka, Jannah, and many others—but seeing Father reduced to a shade made her feel like when she was seven years old and Mother died.

It’s more beautiful than I ever imagined.

“What do I do now?”

Live well, as I taught you. And when your time comes you will join us.

“Those boys, those bushwhackers. They need to be punished! You never hurt anyone, why should they kill you?”

Her father shook his head.

They killed me because I chose a different path than they did. One of them comports with foul spirits and those spirits wanted me removed. They will be punished in the end.

“No, they need to be punished now! Not just death, not just going to the dark place. They need worse.”

Have you forgotten all my lessons? That is not my way and it shouldn’t be yours either.

“You have Power. You could come back and put them in a far lower place.”

Again Father shook his head.

No. I would sink closer to their level. I would no longer be with your mother. And even if it were not for that I wouldn’t do such a thing. Goodness is its own reward, even though goodness gives more rewards than its own nature.

Helena felt rage rise up in her, the same rage she’d felt when Father toppled to the ground with a bullet in his chest and she’d spat the curse at his murderers.

“Hunt them! Drag them down!”

No. I will go now and come back when you are calmer. I love you.

“Wait, don’t go! I’m sorry. Stay a little longer,” she pleaded.

But he was already fading.

Helena sat there fuming, her grief cut with anger. Father had always been too soft, too forgiving. When they’d seen Archibald Keyes whipping his slave by the side of the road, Helena had wanted to intervene, but Father had just snapped the reins to their buggy horse and sped past. “He’ll suffer enough in the Afterlife, child.”

It had been the same when the Sisters of the Union had invited her to join in their fundraising efforts back in ’61 and Father had forbidden it. “We want no part in this war, child. Those who take up arms against their brothers pay for it in the Afterlife.”

The Afterlife, the Afterlife, all he ever talked about was the spirit world. But she lived in this world, alone in a hostile country with no relations on this side of the Atlantic.

Father had said not to get involved in the war. Now the war had killed him and he was still saying not to get involved. Well, she was going to get involved, and in a more effective way than the Sisters of the Union with their bake sales and knitting bees.

But how? She couldn’t don Union blue and go fight like the men did, and she didn’t have the Power to make that curse on the bushwhackers effective.

Unless…

She walked out of her father’s study and down a narrow corridor. One door opened into the photographic studio, where those evil boys had preened and posed for a tintype before gunning her father down. Opposite was the darkroom. The sharp smell of chemicals stung her nostrils. She blinked away tears. That smell always reminded her of Father.

At the end of the corridor hung a curtain of heavy black silk. She parted it and entered a small, windowless room. Striking a match, she lit the red candle that sat on a small gilt table next to the doorway.

This was her father’s secret study, the one visitors didn’t get to see.

The room was barely ten feet to a side, with paneled oak walls and a smooth floor of slate. Drawn in chalk in the center of the floor was a large pentagram surrounded by magical sigils. Facing it was a simple triangle. It was here that Father spoke to the various denizens of the spirit world—the dead and those things that had never lived. He would stand inside the pentagram for protection and would make the creatures appear in the triangle. Despite the popular fairy tales, he would not summon demons to go wreak havoc on the world. There were those who did such things, but Father steered clear of them.

“Their spirits are even lower than the unclean things they call from the Beyond,” he would say.

Instead he summoned the shades of great men and women from bygone ages, and ethereal beings that had no name in any human language. He would stand there protected by his pentagram—for the wall between this world and the next had to be kept firm even if the beings he spoke with were beneficent—and the spirit would appear trapped in the triangle. For long hours through the night he would speak to them and learn the secrets of the universe.

Helena looked longingly at the chalk designs. If only she had the Power she could summon some fell being to strike down those boys, and to hell with the consequences. She had the knowledge. She had read many of Father’s books and listened attentively when he spoke of his rituals, but without the Power it would be like a man struck blind trying to paint a sunset he remembered from childhood.

She turned to a low shelf standing to one side, stuffed with a few books and various items Father used in his rituals—a little gold bell, a flute made from the bone of a giant lizard that had lived in a bygone age, an astrolabe that measured the angles of stars that no uninitiated eye could see, and an ancient brass bowl.

This last item caught her attention. It was the pride of Father’s collection, a relic of ancient Chaldea. Father had instructed her in its use. Unlike everything else, this required no Power or even knowledge to use. She picked it up lovingly and examined the strange script that ran in a spiral around the inside of the bowl.

She set it down and filled it with water from a crystal decanter. Bringing the candle closer, she peered into the water.

For a moment nothing happened. Then the water clouded as if she had mixed it with milk. The writing on the interior of the bowl wavered and faded from view. The surface of the liquid grew still and flat as a mirror and began to emit a pale light. Two figures materialized into view on its surface—her parents.

Helena smiled and they smiled back. Grief tugged at her again, mingled with relief to see them finally together again after being separated by the Veil for fifteen years.

She had looked through this bowl many times since Mother’s death. Strange to think how she had grown from a girl to a young woman and Mother had remained ageless. Now Father would be the same way. They would watch as she grew older, become a mother perhaps, and grow into an old woman, while they remained beyond Time.

Helena smiled again and pointed to her father. She held up his pocket watch, pointed at it and then at him.

“Next time I wish to see you alone,” she said, enunciating the words. The device could not transmit sound, but hopefully Father would understand her gestures and read her lips. He nodded.

For a moment parents and daughter stared at each other through the Veil, and then the image clouded over. The water cleared to as it was before.

Helena sighed. She poured the water back in the decanter and set to work. She had much to do. Time was of the essence, for if Father decided to materialize again before she reached him through the bowl, all would be lost.

Little did he know that his upbringing gave her all the knowledge she needed to defy his wishes.

While Father’s passion had been the Hidden World, he had provided for his family well in the material one. He had built up a thriving photography business. He was one of the first men to open a daguerreotype studio in St. Louis back in the 1850s. When cheaper and easier tintypes were introduced late in the decade, competition became fierce in the city. He had sold the business, upped stakes, and moved to the outskirts of Columbia.

Once again he was among the first. Father proved an excellent technician and his photographs always gave satisfaction. Helena had a talent for painting the photographs, adding rosy cheeks to the babies or coloring in a man’s favorite hat.

Helena had learned all aspects of the business. While the public wouldn’t accept the idea of a woman taking their likeness, she often did the developing in the back room and arranged the lighting in the studio, giving the subjects just the right light at just the right angle.

It was this last skill that she needed now. She bustled around the house, collecting mirrors, ropes, and lamps.

Within an hour she had finished. Father’s secret studio looked much different now. The bowl stood at the center of the summoning triangle. Above it hung two mirrors suspended by ropes from a hook she had hammered into the ceiling. One mirror hung parallel to the floor, reflecting the triangle and the bowl’s interior. One was set behind the bowl and at an angle, so that it reflected the pentagram and the black crepe she had hung behind it. Lines of writing limned in fresh white paint ran down two edges of the crepe, with a space in between where Helena could stand.

With trembling hands Helena bent under the mirror and poured the contents of the decanter into the bowl. She rushed over to the pentagram and stood in the center.

From her vantage point the angled mirror behind the bowl showed her the interior of the bowl. She nodded in satisfaction. She had set it perfectly.

She stood, nervous, waiting.

The water clouded over. Father’s face appeared. He smiled as he saw her reflection, thinking that he was looking directly at his daughter’s face.

Then he looked around with a growing expression of horror.

One mirror reflected the bowl in which he had appeared, and the triangle around it. Father’s head jerked to one side, and Helena knew he was looking at the other mirror’s reflection.

It showed Helena standing in the middle of the pentagram. To either side he read his daughter’s terrible command, her terrible mistake.

I LACK THE POWER TO SUMMON A DEMON TO DO THIS DEED, SO I SUMMON YOU. BY THE POWER OF THE PENTAGRAM AND TRIANGLE I COMMAND YOU. TAKE VENGEANCE ON THOSE WHO STRUCK YOU DOWN. CAST THEM TO THE LOWEST DARKNESS. YOU ARE BOUND BY THE MAGICAL SIGILS YOU YOURSELF DREW. YOU ARE UNDER COMPULSION. THE STAIN IS ON ME, NOT YOU. I AM SORRY FATHER.

Lars Schmidt’s face contorted in despair. His image smeared, his wailing mouth stretching out in a silent scream.

And then he was gone.

Helena collapsed. The summoning had worked. Father would have to do the right thing now, and being forced into it he would not lose his place in the Light.

Helena, on the other hand, had stained her soul forever.

She wept for the second time that day, knowing that now death really was goodbye.


Submitted: January 18, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Sean McLachlan. All rights reserved.

Check out Sean McLachlan's Book


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A Fine Likeness

A Confederate guerrilla and a Union captain discover there’s something more dangerous in the woods than each other.

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Comments

CreativeMarauder

Wow, this was really good. Very emotional, very grounded in it's fantastical elements. If the girl is a minor character I don't know that I can handle the emotions you tie to your main characters.

Brilliant delivery.

I can see why you got to quit your day job. You are very good at this.

Wed, January 19th, 2022 11:09am

Author
Reply

That's very kind of you to say so!

Wed, January 19th, 2022 5:11am

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