The Flaming Towers

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
A historical gothic story in which a story is told in NY in 1781 at the end of the American Revolution of horrifying events affecting 17th century New Amsterdam one September morning which mystify as well as terrify those affected (but which will have a horribly familiarity to modern readers. NOT ALL GHOSTS ARE OF THE PAST)

Submitted: March 18, 2015

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Submitted: March 18, 2015

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~~The Flaming Towers
 or
An Account of the Otherworldly Visitations Upon New York and New Amsterdam.
For those of you who think my tale casts a spyglass only on my own morbid disposition, I can only pray you should take my word I am the most convivial of fellows. For those who think my tale the scion of a melancholy day the record of history stands to correct you. That autumn brought none of the customary gloom of the slow descent into winter to the good folks of New York City, for we knew that our hour of deliverance was finally drawing near. 1783 was to be the last year that New York suffered under tyranny. The fruit of our fight for freedom was inches from our hungry bite and in life the anticipation can be as sweet as the fruit tasted. It was not a day for introspection or for gloom; not for biblical revelation or apocalyptic dreaming. But apocalypse I had foretold and am haunted by and can now know no rest from. It has formed a mountain in my mind, so that it towers even over the enormous events of history which I have lived through and dare I say, been party to. It shames as ardent a patriot as I to say it but I confess I have known little but dread when I think of the prospects of this nation since that terrible night.
I now see my life divided into the time before I heard Dutch Annie’s story and these desolate days since. It will not give but a moment of rest and blazes unbidden into my thoughts. If I look at a blank wall or close my eyes at any time, I can see the hellish image before me of it. Every other sound reminds me of what I heard though there seems no logical connection with them. It robs me of sleep and what little sleep it allows me it poisons with fearful dreams. I manage less than an hour’s bravado at most when I call on the devils to do their worst. But this, no matter the effort I expend to preserve it, soon crumples and I find myself in funk or quaking or –the shame of it! but I cannot help myself – sobbing like a baby.  I can see no rest for me unless I act upon a coward’s plan that I would have spat upon in my days before I heard that story.
For the first of my forty five years I thanked God every day that my father boarded the boat from Belfast to New York. Lately I have begun to consider that the only solace I may ever find would be to board the boat back there. Fear drove me from my rightful status as master of my own joiners in the city to lowly shopkeepers assistant out here by the frontier and fear pursues me still. Human wickedness I can face with spirit but, as the reader will understand, my tale carries with it portents of wickedness of a scale no mortal hand could engineer.
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As stated I was far from melancholy when the day began, though any race but an American would be downhearted when struck by the sight that hit my eyes each morning. My bedroom window was above my place of business at the corners of Wall Street and Broadway. Each morn I had the perfect view of a blasted wasteland half a mile wide and a mile long, reaching from Broadway to the Hudson and from the commons to the battery. Twas a gift from the Idiot George. He may not have set the flame but twas his idiocy and stubbornness that was the flint that the spark was struck on. After their fleet had pummelled us with a thousand gun cannonade, the British captured New York in September, 1776. As soon as their troops arrived patriots put parts of the city to the torch.
Before the war that land I viewed from my window was christened by wits “Holy Town”. For it was an area of no mean notoriety, housing all the worst of the city’s pimps, doxies, low groggeries and cutthroats. None could curse the scorching of that Sodom. On the night of the fire I did my bit for the Republic by breaking open a bottle of brandy and cheering the flames and I confess my enthusiasm lessened little when the flames reached the great Trinity church itself, bringing it crashing down in an orange inferno. I would have not have cheered though, had I thought of the miserable view to greet me every morn for the next seven years. “Holy Town” became “Canvas Town” as homeless from not just New York but from all across America pitched there turning it into one huge camp site for the destitute.
New York had seen a flood of patriots leave at the arrival of the British and then this was mitigated by the incoming flood of loyalist refugees from elsewhere. As if the presence of the red coats wasn’t nauseous enough we had the supplicants of the king from all over America to content with. Some I’ll confess (but only now the war is ended) I could bear more than others. I could never bring myself in my heart to hate those fools who through some genuine failure of their make-up could not free themselves of the age old spiritual weakness that demands servility to kingship. For those, like the silly Scotch refugees out of Virginia who could not bear but to live free and without a chief’s lash working their back, I came to feel a certain pity mixed with my contempt. For those who had simply gambled that the revolution was bound to fail and lost, my contempt was pure. It was a joy to see their faces as the news of Washington’s victories rolled in. The days of mock medieval soldiers balls where their bitchfoxly daughters with rouged cheeks would squeal and degrade themselves for their fathers influence were over. Their propaganda sheets slandering Washington and Jefferson as donkeys and monkeys were silenced. “Canvas Town” was home for the poorer of those fools throughout the war and you can reckon how little I enjoyed the sight of this great island of both moral and physical squalor from my window; five hundred wretches shivering around horse dung camp fires, cooking potatoes with sticks for spits; their starved and sore lipped children begged from me and every customer coming to my premises. The sobbed lamentations of them on went on deep into each night and disturbed my sleep. Now all the loyalist refugees from elsewhere were long gone and New York’s own loyalists were clearing out. The last of the tyrants sucklings were crossing the sea to return to the kingly tit and the city was now emptier than I had ever known it. The city’s patriot homeless were claiming for themselves abandoned Loyalist homes and so the last of Canvas Town’s tents had come down to reveal the area in all its naked glory. A wasteland empty but for the pigs and dogs wandering through it searching for scraps amongst the blackened brick and jack-strawaed timbers. 
But could a sight even as miserable as this break the hearts of a proud American when the morning would soon be a reality when George Washington and our brave patriot boys once again rode down Broadway? The red coats sprinkled like measles through the populace and would be, like the disease, eventually fought off. 
Jenny Clow, the wife of a patriotic baker across Pearl Street was also at her window and called to me: “Freedom calls, Dick! It almost here”
“It’s at out door Jenny. It lifts its hand to knock right as we stand hear” 
“Can you feel it, Dick! Can you feel it in your bones?”
“Yes I can good lass! Who could not”
Jenny’s husband joined her at the window and became part of our throwing of rejoicings across Pearl Street until even the paupers in the gutters below began to join in. It was publicly engaging in such displays (and also gifting some Hessians the contents of my slop bucket ) that had won me six months of hell in the prison ship “Jersey” and I would have suffered god only knows how much longer if dear Washington had not forced the Tyrant to sue for peace. But none had fear of proclaiming our patriotism any longer. By that time, when the tyrants supplicants saw our celebrations all they could do was glare on with envy.
There are some- and my darling Euphemia was one -who can always find there mood to be against the tide of history. Euphemia, my angel, on that glorious day when the Declaration of Independence was read in New York was badly cramped and suffering from the woman’s curse and was unable to join us in the tearing down of the tyrants statue for fear of leaving a crimson stream down Broadway. When news of Saratoga reached us her wrath was as warm as a furnace that night when I staggered home after suitable celebration of our victory. I regard the scar on my forehead from the frying pan attack as a wound sustained –in spirit – at Saratoga. However I, unlike my dear departed darling, had a mood that was flowing with history’s tide. Freedoms near embrace soothed all personal concerns and afflictions. Liberty’s soft kiss soothed my arthritis and cooled my piles.
The story of the greater portion of that day is soon told. It would be no jest to say that when Billy, my apprentice, was sweeping the carvings off the floor from Mr Enoch Buttersly’s new clockcase and I was performing my last satisfied observations of it, it was my bed that beckoned not the streets of New York. However, in the last days of occupation it was the duty of every patriot to be seen by our oppressors making merry, whatever the expense in silver or in energy. Not a red coat should sail for home who was not being choked by the green serpent envy at the paradise they’d lost and the joyous banquet they had been disinvited from.
My leather apron was discarded. I attired myself in white silk stockings, white buckskin breeches tied at the knee with pink spotted silk and an apple green corduroy coat with plush collar. My calloused hands slipped into doveskin gloves. My tricorn was trimmed with gold lace, the square buckles on my shoes polished to a blinding gleam and my two watch chains (both attached to dummies alas) dangled with suitable ostentation from my waistcoat pockets. I flatter myself I cut no poor figure as I left my premises, after instructing my apprentice to look upon me and pay me compliments. When I crawled from the interior of the “Jersey” prison ship two years before the cruel bastards had had starved me down to a skeleton. But by the autumn of 1783, I’m pleased to say, my belly stood out and proud and worked cruelly against the metal buttons of my waistcoat. 
I was eager for any redcoats to see me and know that all Americans were unbroken and unbowed. However, to my dismay the first red coat I passed, not ten steps from my door was one of the Tyrants “Loyal Ethiopians”, who was so fattened on his own good fortune he could muster no envy for me in my finery.
Don’t even get me started on the free blacks! Not one would you see step aside for their betters in the street and the sauce with which they replied when spoken to had to be heard to be believed. It was as if wearing the Tyrants uniform had deluded them that they were as good as any white man. The previous day I berated a pack of them for hanging around in front of my shop swilling jugs of cider and braying their animal noises at each other: “You dammed apes had better re-learn your manners or your masters will just have to whip them back into your black hides when they get you back!!” At the wars end, the continental congress was quite naturally demanding the return to its rightful owners of all human property that had been spirited away during the wars conduct. The prospect of seeing the smiles wiped off the faces of the niggers as they were stripped of their red uniforms and forced back into the cotton field should have been one of treats to behold as liberty prevailed. However, as should have been expected the British dishonourably refused the return of property and offered the slave owners compensation instead. And so there was Tobias, the Ethiopian’s local ringleader, as I stepped out the door. He was still redcoated and with his arm around the waist of volumous black doxy and with a scampering brood of picaninees in tow. They had their belongings in bundles and were headed for the dockside. From their great ivory grins and giggling you’d think they had been gifted all England by the Tyrant and not twelve acres of Nova Scotia. When they saw me their hilarity increased and Tobias called out, “No more whippin’ fo’ our black hides Mista Mon’gom’rie! No mo’ whippin’ fo’ us ever again”.
I determined not to let the negro’s merriment ruin my own. I had half a mind to head northwards up Broadway to drink and gamble in The Hag and Harlequin. Then again there were even baser pleasures available to be considered in the taverns by the dockside where the punchable nuns were lowering there rates by the day as they lost their English and German customers.
But no. About a hundred yards from my door where the wasteland touches Broadway, my feet did not continue on northward but turned onto a rough foot path that lead to the heart of the scorched earth west of Broadway described earlier. What could compel my presence in such loveless terrain, you enquire? The answer glowed, in the gathering gloom (for it was now twilight) one hundred yards deep into the wasteland close to the southern border of the commons. Just a streets width away from where the Trinity Church had stood. For there - the first of its lamps just coming to life- lay “The Fighting Cocks” groggery snuggled amougnst the black ruins. It was the premises of Annie “Dutch Annie” Van Tromp. The great fire, fearful of disturbing the venerable lady, had swept around Annie’s place leaving a yellow walled oasis in the midst of the fire ravaged wilderness for me to trudge to my evening rum.
As I said before, this stretch of land was an offence to the eye and it was little less than friendly underfoot. Twas a weaving journey around what walls remained. Every step sounded the crunch of powdered whores’ bones; and though I had despised to look at those creatures from my window while they lived, I was still loathed to make music from their unmarked graves. Around this pathway, well worn by my fellow rum fiend and drunkards, threading its way through the ruins toward my destination, there was not a fragment of interest to this war made wilderness. And that evening as always my patriotic heart would not dwell upon that world of white dust and black grime, scattered bricks and roofless windows – a maze of vice turned to a desert of despondency.
My gaze was held upward as I walked and I saw not what was there in the present but what our glorious new Republic would surely build there: what glittering new palaces of chrome and glass, pearl and marble would we create! In gaps between the ruined walls I could catch glimpses of the Kings College, a magnificent classical pile at the commons edge. It was in such grand style that we would rebuilt this city, though even grander for our new palaces would be not for any princes, dukes or earls- but for the people. My minds eye saw these glittering castles reaching further and further skyward, gaining height and grandeur with every generation passing. One hundred feet? Two hundred? Five hundred? Who knew what heights our nation might reach when free. Was there any limit? Oh, what joy it was to be an American when the sun went down that evening. It was beyond impossible that I could have imagined my nationhood could ever be the curse it felt to me at sun-up.
There was nothing in my entrance to Annie’s to foretell this transformation. From the outside the “Fighting Cocks”, had little to distinguish it from the surrounding wasteland But from the light from its windows and smoke from its chimney, the unknowing might think the low cramped building with its ravaged exterior walls was just a ruin, by chance a little less damaged by the fire than its surroundings.
I’m no giant but I had to bow to enter its door. Inside there was pipesmoke and woodsmoke. Only three men were making merry within its cramped interior; spitting and swearing and laughing rum soaked laughs and all the other necessities for the atmosphere of a friendly tavern. There was something to me concerning the atmosphere of this particular drinking den that had me, after first entry by chance discovery, returning there. Afterwards, as the experiences I had there mounted up and the entanglement of fellowships grew stronger there became no place on earth like those cramped and smoky confines for draining the exhaustion of a days labour from my bones. Like many a loyal patron, I continued to suffer that trek through that ravaged wasteland just as before I had braved the treacherous vennals and wynds of “Holy Town”. 
Inside the building was squat and yellow coloured, like its owner. I don’t think in all my years of I knew her I ever saw Dutch Annie in any other position but as she was when I entered that night; behind her counter with her clay pipe either in hand or between her teeth. Her face had not seemed to have aged in all the years I knew her either but then it had never looked young. Her features were always lined and always jaundiced. Never smiling. Her hair always fell beside that ruined visage in girlish Dutch plaits. Her only reaction on seeing me enter was to remove the pipe from between her teeth and call: “Pot for Montgomerie, Caesar”, to her quadroon. In each of my entries that was as close as she ever made to calling a greeting. When, two years before,  I was released from the Jersey after six months I made my way there to Dutch Annie’s in expectation of a hero’s welcome and still all I got was “Pot for Montgomerie, Caesar”. But still, since I buried all 18 dainty stone of my Euphemia, I don’t think I have ever developed greater affection for anyone in the world more than this little, yellow toad.
I had  being looking forward to the company of a crowd of my fellows but deprived of that I would be just as happy to parlay with Dutch Annie and with her lacking customers to serve, she would have little excuse but to enjoy my conversation and good natured ribaldry.
Her sarcasm as always made itself conspicuous in her opening gambits. As I found a straw bottomed chair and then dropped my coin on the counter, she grumbled around her pipe and through rotted teeth: “Not interested in buyin’ any collectables, Dick. Would you care to be payin’ for your rum now?”
“It’s a Greek Byzant, Annie. Its all true silver”.
Annie hunched her bony shoulders and stared at it, as if squaring up to an enemy.
“Aye?”
“Truly, my friend”.
Annie picked it up and placed it between her chops. Her bite on it ground off only a grain from one of her remaining front teeth.
“I’ll take it only as recognition of your regular custom during thin times, Mr Montgomerie. Though you are mighty prosperous these days Dick if you are hooking in custom all the way from Athens”.
“Twas an Arab sailor off the “Vengeance” and I’d say mighty prosperous was a step beyond veracity but I’ll agree with you my friend that business is improving now that our liberation is close at hand”.
“Think you, Montgomerie, that you have only your own good efforts to be in possession of a prospering business”. There was no change in Annie’s expression as she said this though I knew she meant it mischievously. She was reminding me it had been my patriotic fellows, who congregated in “The Fighting Cocks”, who had helped me – largely at Annie’s instigation - reclaim my business and property from a Tory scoundrel  after my release from the Jersey.
“I always tell you Annie I’m grateful but not embarrassed by your help. I’ve hardly been an idle patriot since my release. I’m not a man to gather favours without doing my own part in return – and that’s before I even mention the two trays, the shelf and this bloody chair my arse is sitting on that I made for you for free!!”
Annie as always refused to acknowledge the free trays, etc, and murmured between pipe puffs: “Aye I suppose you haven’t been too idle a patriot. I hear mischief was done not two nights but last”
I smirked “Why you should ask me about that Annie, I do not know. But  I am aware – purely through hearsay – that the Quickfall brothers have made plans to vacate these shores when the last of the British leave.”
The events we were talking of – or rather around – were the efforts of me and some other good patriots to ensure that as our new nation came into life its population was pure of heart and unpolluted.  The temptation to deliver a boot to arse most of the loyalists to help them on their way was strong but best resisted as the British were still in charge and most of them would find their way away soon enough. General Carelton, our last imperial overseer, it must be admitted was civilised enough (a symptom of his Irishness no doubt). The impatient euphoria of Manhattan’s heirs and the embittered despondency of the defeated maintained as civilised relations as could be managed trapped together on such a crowded little island. There were occasional street fights, of coarse. Bricks flew through windows. Curses and spittle were exchanged in the street. Overall, though, the general feeling was that they should go crawl back to the slavery of kingship and we should get on with celebrating our freedom. The process should be completed with the minimum of ugliness which could only lead to delay. There was, however, the odd New Yorker who was in need of some friendly persuasion from myself and other patriots that a free America would not be requiring their services. Daniel Cruishank –a Wall Street lawyer no less- had since Yorktown been claiming his avowed Loyalism had been just a rouse “to see what the British were up to”. He had drank their wine, attended their balls and jeered at Washington all in the service of the Revolution. One night in July 1783, he had it pointed out to him by a few of us that that story was not entirely persuasive. The aforementioned Quickfall brothers, Elijah and Ebeneezer, purveyors of the emptiest pies in Manhattan, had also benefited from a late night visit. At the wars begin, Elijah had declared himself the proudest Patriot. Ebeneezer with equal adammance had proclaimed his loyalty to the King. Throughout the occupation, ownership of their butchers had been put in Ebenezer’s hands but with Elijah continuing to work there just as before. It had become clear that once the occupation was at an end they planned simply to reverse the roles. It was pointed out to them in strong terms that their rouse had fooled no-one. They could get their whole selves off out of New York or if they wished to keep playing the half-patriot, the half-loyalist, half of each man would be getting shipped off back to its grateful king.
“If they won’t be going until the last British go then we can bank on the Quickfalls selling there stingy pies and wevilly biscuits on Pearl Street for another three score years”.
I sighed, for this had been a fruitless discussion we had had on my previous evening spent in the “Fighting Cocks” and I had no longing to argue it out again. 
“Now, now Annie. We’ve been through this before- for hours and without conclusion. There’s been a peace signed.”
“By that reckoning the British should never need found a war at all. Just signed a peace sayin’ they’d leave someday but stay forever. Like there doin’ now”
“Haven’t you eyes Annie. There leavin’. There’s barely two shiploads left now”.
“It’s a trick, I tell ye’. They’ll be comin’ back with reinforcements. They’ll never leave until a sword is run through the last of them but Washington’s not man enough to do it”.
“Annie, ain’t you seen enough blood for one lifetime?”
“Of Englishmen? Never”. Enraged spittle escaped from between her cracked lips.
 At that moment another customer drawn by the “Fighting Cocks’ charm and atmosphere drew away Annie’s attention. When she returned to me I determined to lighten the atmosphere.
“Aye well…we are allies not enemies Annie. We are in dispute only over timing. Rest assured that whether this time next year or in a hundred years, as you say, the day will come when these evil spirits shall be exorcised from our land.”
“And freedom exorcises a land of its evil spirits does it Dick. Is that your delusion?”
I laughed “I would say freedom is the best cure for all things and that would surely include the bogeyman”.
“I wouldn’t mock evil if I were you Dick. Especially as one who declines Gods protection.”
I was surprised that our discourse had taken this turn because when I had spoken of “evil spirits” and “exorcism” I had, of coarse, been using the words only as symbols of the traces two hundred years of kingship must leave on our new republic. I had assumed Annie would not take this literally. Annie, though she could fit God into every other sentence, had never been one to take the conversation to supernatural spheres. I looked close into Annie’s features to divine if she was serious and could see no signs of tease.
“Are ghosts on your mind then Annie. Surely if you’ve been disturbed by some black and frightening shadow in the night it was only your slave”
 “No slaves here Mista Montgomerie” said Caesar.
“Aye well, your manservant then.”
“Not especially but what you said has got me to thinking of other peoples who thought that the free air of America could let them leave there sins behind. Aye and it did, I suppose. But evil finds a way, Dick. It will come at you from all directions. And it found them. Men know that they can be cursed by their grandfather’s sins but how many know that their grandchildren’s sins can find them too. Evil can find man no matter where he abides Dick. Mark my words”.
“To who and where was this evil”.
“The where would be right here. To whom? To the people who abided here more than six score years ago when this town was New Amsterdam, abiding within the colony of the New Netherlands”.
“Ah! It’s a family tale”. I should not have been surprised by this as Annie had never been shy of pointing to the depth of her American roots to win an argument. Dutch Annie had in fact claim to being the most American of all New Yorkers. Her ancestors had landed on the lower tip of Manhattan before Peter Minuit bought it from the savages. Their ships landed onto not docks but virgin sandbanks and they cut down forests and tilled soil untouched by white hands. Her great-grandmother Neeltje Andwerter, Annie claimed had been the first white child born in all Manhattan and I had never heard anyone creditably dispute the claim. . However, I had often questioned whether this early start to her American ancestry was truly a sound footing for predicting the shape of things to come. It was surely in these times of change, more a cause of misconception; a cause of the delusion that what has been in the past must be again.
“Aye. Told to me by my Grandmother Griet and witnessed by her very own eyes – but it’s a long tale”.
“Well Annie. Your custom is down to just me Sidney Carter and Alfred James and your sla…freeman I’m sure can serve them while we talk”
“But Dick, I wouldn’t want to plague you with nightmares at a time when deliverance is the mood of the moment”.
“Nightmares?” I exclaimed.
“It’s a tale men have wished they could unhear”
“I have suffered much for liberty but I would not have undone one blow I have taken in its name. If there is learning in your story I would hear it no matter how painful the lesson. The pure of heart have nothing to fear from the truth”.
“Your sufferings for liberty brought salvation at their end, Dick. If this story told me by my grandmother carries portents there is no salvation in hearing it.”
“Cease with the prevarication woman! You know you’ll tell me and I know you are incapable of shortening the telling. What occurred ?”
She paused and then after her beady eyes had darted about the room searching out any spies who would overhear her impart her secret, said “Have you ever had anyone tell you of the Flaming Towers of New Amsterdam?”
I assumed for a moment Annie was joking with me. Then on realising she was serious I couldn’t contain a snort of derision followed by a gale of laughter. I was wiping away tears when I said to her: ”Oh, dear me Annie. After warnings of giving me nightmares this is the terrible tale you offer me, the flaming towers of New Amsterdam. An old wives tale that was probably old when white man first set foot in America.”
“You’ve heard of them?”
“Is there a man in New York who hasn’t? In about a dozen groggeries and at as many firesides I’ve heard it begin. The winged devils who raped virgins and the two great burning towers almost one hundred feet high” I laughed. “It was on a cold dark such as this ‘round midnight….”
Annie interrupted me tersely. ”Well, I don’t know what You think yer know Dick Montgomerie but you know nothin’ at all of what I’m sayin’. Maybe every man jack in New York knows some tale or other that’s been through fifty other people and corrupted like watered down cider until there barely a drop to taste of what was started with. But I heard it all right at my grandmother’s spinning wheel and she saw it all with her own eyes and no man who actually knows anything about it all will tell you any of it played out around midnight”.
Annie tapped out her pipe, then gave a mournful sigh. After a long pause she began: “It was just an ordinary September morning….”,
While roaring fires on dark nights may have played no part of her tale, the dark night of the telling and the now near empty shop gave as good a backdrop to it as any gothic romance could desire. I won’t interrupt Annie’s story with description of how it affected my spirits as the tale went on. The reader will be aware from my state of mind at the evening’s end that I was much discomfited. This did not arise whole at any single point –although some details disturbed me more than others- but crawled slow and invisible up my spine like some malicious arachnoid. The fire played the grim accompaniment required of any ghost story, crackling malevolently throughout, its thickest log suddenly falling in the grate to make me jump at one point. Annie’s mulatto, Caesar, normally the mildest of forms took on in my mind the form of some dark satanic presence, as he cast a serious of looks my way which seemed to mock my fear. And most of all Annie’s face; those shrivelled, beautiless features for whom I had over the years developed so much curmudgeonly affection, would be transformed as she talked into the contorted features of a most wicked and accursed hag. 
“…in the year 1651. What my grandmother remembered, just as all who were there remembered was, the very ordinariness of the day at its beginning. And here it was that she woke up. This very buildin’ yer standin’ in. There’s been some new roofs on and some repairs to the walls but mostly this is the same brick my grandmothers pappy, Jeremais Andwerter, put up on this spot more than a century ago.
“Griet was eight years old when this story takes place. And on the mornin’ it all happened she was dragged out of bed by her hair but this was no unusuality. The dragger was the farm girl Anneke Tienhoven; brought over from Feisland for twenty guilders to work like a slave for the Andwertrers. The compensation this fifteen year old minx had was to work little Griet like a slave by her side until the child was of an age that she could do the hair pullin’ herself. Little Griet had ‘til recently worshipped the older girl, who was a beauty for sure but all affections had parched over the weeks. Though Griet had known Anneke unappalled by men’s attention she had still been horribly affrighted the morning she accompanied the wench to town on market day. There she had accidentally stumbled upon the Goddess Anneke bent over some bags of flour and being made a squealin’ blonde hog by the miller’s son. Griet had no notion of what lust even was at that time of life and that one scene killed any danger of her aquirin’ it. She swore at the youngest of ages that she would never herself succumb to such hellish abuses and it was her most unhappy and unwillin’ predicament that family debts had necessitated her marriage to fat old Adrien van Tromp. His inclination throughout had been the abuse of his wife and children. This spurred Griet to beseech her daughters to stick to the oath little Griet had made after seein’ Anneke whore herself while those windmill sails turned. All three of Griets daughters kept their oaths of spinsterhood and chastity. As the world and his brother likes to remind me each day, I wouldn’t even exist at all myself but for the cruel abduction and abuse of my mother against her will by that mob of English sailors; God rot them all especially that one whose seed was planted!
Anyway, as I said Griet had until recently responded to the hussy Anneke’s hair pullin’ and slaps and woundin’ words with a desirin to please and be thought better of by this older beauty but she had of late scowled and cheeked her back. That mornin’ in the cow shed she had pouted and plotted some indistinct revenge while Anneke did little of her share of the milkin’ and carryin’ but much admirin’ of her own prettiness in the refection of the horse brasses.
Those first hours on farms pass in a dull haze. The tasks that need attendin’ ,as soon as sun is up are near finished while the sleeper has barely stepped out of her dreamworld and the sky the black ink of night has only just begun to be watered down. But by the time mornin’ had flowered into full daytime and the milkin’ was done it was time to head back to the farmstead – to this room maybe, not sure- for what pleasures even the harshest lives can afford. It was just my Griet and her mother and father in the farm at that time although there were brothers to follow. For that time though, Griet got the affection due an only child. The three were happy enough together all as one but there was a special bond between Griet and her mother as the two native born Americans in the home.
They all sat at their breakfast table that mornin’ and talked there farmers talk. Farmers talk, with its seeds and harvests and weather is of the same kidney anywhere in the world, I suppose, except there was more talk of flyin’ arrows and scalpin’s than you’d get in Fiesland.. They said there prayers- Aye Dick, ye may blush- and ate salted herring on bread and cheese Anneke was kindness and consideration to Griet with her parents there while the little ‘un gave the mansick hussy nothin’ but dagger eyes back. Neeltje fussed and teased her daughter while, Jeremais, though he cut no small figure stayed as always pretty still and pretty quiet. All was ordinariness. That’s what all in that house would say afterward and most New Amsterdam would say the same. Mindin’ of coarse that there is always some prattler who says they could sense some omen or other that evil was comin’ though they never got round to mention it at the time. What talk of news there was in New Amsterdam was of the Indian war and the near arrival of the “Augustus” with its cargo of  spices and manufactured goods. Manhattan’s harvest had been no better and not much worse than last years.  No war party of Iroquis had cannoed into New York harbour then tommahawked their way through the Strand as happened a couple of years previously. The Andwerters breakfasted away that mornin’ with no more cares than was usual.
The tiredness was only just startin’ to bleed from little Griet’s bones when breakfast was over and the real exhaustions of the day were already waitin’ impatiently. The wrench from that cosy breakfast table back to outside had become the worst part of each day. Neeltje teased her for her sulky face and Griet longed to stay indoors by her mother’s skirts as she did in winter time
Time would bring three brothers whose arrival she would curse but in 1651 Griet had the troubles of an only child. Too young to swing a scythe or help with the housework, she had an hour between helping with chicken plucking and washing she had to be out in the field at her leisure. The only work to be done –bird scaring. She could have been at play for want of playmates. They had had dog for game birds and a cat for mice but neither of them was of a playful nature.
She would sooner have been helping her mother rather than stand alone for half an hour. She sang to warn birds from the birdless field. Then bored, she ran from the beech tree to the to the cow shed back and forward until her tiny lungs wore out. Standing panting, beetroot faced and enjoying the giddiness of exhaustion, she noticed a sometime playmate standing in the neighbouring field: Anthony, the Krol family’s slave. She had often been swung around like a windmill sail by him or ridden on the back of that friendly black giant but had learned she could not always do so. She had watched in horror as Pieter Krol had subjected him to the foulest abuse for playing with her when his brow should have been dripping with sweat. She knew play with Anthony was an uncommon treat and had learned to watch for the signs his reaction to her- a cheerfulness or sadness in his smile- to know if fun was to be had. She played loudly at the farms border to catch his attention; waiting for her friend’s silent encouragement or rebuff. He gave no sign either way. Anthony was stood dead still, contemplating the sky.
Anthony, who was normally the most animated of fellows - Griet could not remember any time she had saw him in such a pose- was standing stock still; a black marble statue. His head was thrown back and he was gazing skyward. She waited for a change, some indication of why he stood so but like black marble he remained. She quickly spied that his cruel master was not in earshot and braved a shout “Anthony” but he played no heed. As she watched him, she saw the expression on his face was turning by the tiniest degrees from confusion towards fear. She shouted again, “Anthony”. He didn’t flinch from his skyward vigil.
Her friend had her befuddled so, that she thought of braving to cross the Krol’s corn and tease him from his pose but decided instead that she should tell her father of the strangeness of it. She turned to see that her father was at the farms opposite; his hoe inactive in his hand, his wide brimmed hat  pushed back from his head for him to crane his neck and contemplate the sky as Anthony was.
In the backyard in the scene of Anthony’s strange vigil, she could see the stream at the far side of their neighbours land, Mrs Krol. She was a small figure from such distance but Griet could see she struck the same attitude as her slave; stock still, neck craned and face skyward.
A turn to the farmhouse found that framed in the doorway, with top half of the door open, was her dear mother in the same pose again. Griet could read her mothers face like no other living souls. She felt a sliver of ice touch her insides as she contemplated the good woman’s face; for there was a sense of dread on those dear features that that face had never worn even through the most trying times on the Andwerter farm. A grim accompaniment began, as the Andwerter’s dog and others from surrounding farms all began to bark at the sky and even the northward forest the warning cry of wolves began to sound. It was then that Griet heard the first screech: from the sky but also it seemed from the bowels of hell.
She dared not now look upward herself. She glanced around the landscape. The flatlands of  mid-Manhattan had been Griets home as long as she could remember. On a clear day like this she could see a mile in any direction. Even in her short years she saw change to the landscape. The tangled green forest had retreated further north, almost out of sight. Betwixt town and wild forest there was not a scrap of land any longer untenanted. Brushwood had been cleared for flat grass and corn. The eternally bubbling streams were dirtier and duskier. Houses and shacks had tripled their number. The footpaths and cart tracks were rutted deeper. Mid- Manhattan was as calm and orderly as any Dutch garden but it was here that clear autumn morning that a sense of dread moved to cover the landscape like a malign mist. Even in the furthest distance she could see no scythes moved, water pails lay at their feet. A pig herd on the long track that has since become Broadway stood and gazed upwards while his swine stream dispersed in all directions. Poor Griet needed a whispered prayer before she had the spirit to look upward herself and at the exact moment that she did so she heard another screech of one of the devils that was flying in the sky above her.
Later there were arguments afterwards about how many there were. Some swore twenty one others sixteen.  But Griet counted careful and at the ordeals beginning there were for sure nineteen winged devils up there swirling one thousand feet in the air.
They were little more than black shapes in the sky but already there was enough about them to signify dark significance to there arrival. Though they were far from distinct enough could be seen of them from the ground to make out that they were of a size larger than any creature that she knew of that flew. That may not in itself have been enough to scare her; encountering new creatures were a common occurrence here in the New World. What truly chilled her was that these flying creatures so clearly of inhuman shape were emitting cries that - although in no language she knew - could come from none but a human intelligence. The formations that they made in the sky too, already seemed to Griet to demonstrate an intelligence beyond the animal. In fact their circular swirls seemed designed to impress those on the ground. All the occurrences that would happen that day seemed to have more of a sense of display about them than any real purpose. This little dark shapes in the sky radiated their malevolent intent - like black light - just by their presence. Though Griet knew not exactly what they were she knew immediately two things of them: that they were not of this world and that they wished her and all the people of the New Netherlands harm. Little Griet surrendered her tiny form to great trembling. The child’s instinct, of coarse, was to run to be in her mothers arms but when she looked to her mother she saw what is even worse for a child to face than terror in their own heart: terror in the heart of their parent. So like everyone else little Griet stayed where she was and looked up in the sky. She watched those creatures who were up there and waited to see what they would do next, for the creatures in the air knew what was next to come and none on the ground did. The winged devils would rule Manhattan from the sky that morning and all that those mortals on the ground could do is react to what was inflicted upon them.
And what did those unkind observers see as they looked down upon their victims? New Amsterdam didn’t reach up two miles as far as New York does now. The wall at the top of New Amsterdam was at …well, Wall Street of coarse, where you stay Dick, and where we are now was all settled farmlands with the forests still infested with redskins just a couple of miles north. In the farms right beneath where the devils had congregated as I have said no-one did much at all except stand and gawp in terror but down in  town where the folks were pushed up close together they all started feeding off each others fear right away and indulging in more active panic. Three quarters of the town were good Dutch citizens but it had also attracted scum from all the seven seas who thought the new world would be all easy pickings. And wasn’t it those reprobates – the scallywags and privateers, tattooed and boastful, who spent every evening in the taverns of the Strand showing off their cutlass scars and boasting of the good men they had robbed - who shamed themselves worst by their fear right away. The arrival in the sky of those otherworldly creatures had left most New Amsterdammers standing and staring as the farmers were but the worst of the towns knaves knew no such inaction. Like curs they rushed southward towards the safety of the tower fortress; with ponytails flying, their high heeled boots pounding the muddy streets and pushing women and children from their way. On forcing entry to the fort the poxy mob threw out what prisoners were in the dungeon and made that place their haven, where they right away became meek and prayerful. All New Amsterdam could fall prey to the flying devils so long as they themselves were spared.
“But hold on”, I interrupted Annie’s tale for the first and last time “I thought this was the eye witness account of your Grandmother. If this is so then how she have seen to tell the things you are telling me unless she had eyes all over New York”.
“My Grandmother could tell me because it became common talk and common knowledge what had been going on in every corner of the island after the days events were over. I can tell you only what my Grandmother saw with her own eyes if it vexes you that I do otherwise, Dick, but this was a day that had all Manhattan in turmoil: every one of its two thousand souls. 
The disgraceful behaviour of New Amsterdam’s pirates was only the first fearful of eruption within the population. The devils could be seen and heard from the whole of the New Netherlands. That meant there were farmers out on Staten Island and in Breuckelen squakin like their chickens in the farmyard and watching their cows miscarry out of fear. Fishermen in the East River were near jumping out of their boats. In the tight little streets and gabled houses of New Amsterdam folk were shouting there terror in all the languages of the world. The most stout hearted were turning to jelly and the most impious were dusting down there bibles to clutch to their bosoms. Men were trying to put every ship that was in dock to sea while others fought on the gangplanks for their place on board. The guard were called out and private citizens were loading up there own muskets. What! all this over some shapes in the sky? you might ask. But those simple folk knew portents better than us, Dick, and the significance of these creatures they could tell at a glance. The Anti-Christ was at hand! Aye, all you who dismiss The Beast will scream as they did when they see him even his agents only first appears as dots in the sky. Though those amongst them pure of heart like little Griet should have kept faith that they would survive. Revelations Chapter two, Verse ten, Dick. “fear none of those things which thou shall suffer, behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried and ye shall have tribulation 10days; be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life”.
Even the heathens recognised the creatures as the servants as Lucifer or their own folklore’s version of him. Up by the banks of the Harlem River Maquas squaws and papooses cowered in their tipis. While in the forests outside Paronia, Mohawk hurried to throw their arrows into quivers and smear on their coloured stripes of war paint. They rattled their jewellery and bellowed their war cries at the sky.
If – as you insist - I tell you only what little Griet saw with her own blue eyes it will be a terrible tale just that on its own but you’ll miss hearing of much else of significance.”
“Tell your story in your own way, Annie”
“I’m obliged, Dick. Now as I said: at the Devils first arrival there was a pack of nineteen of them swirling in the sky split but then ten broke off to fly south across the mouth of the Hudson and on over the horizon towards New Sweden. Every heart in New Amsterdam willed the others to depart with them but the remainder of the devils continued to terrorise those below with their dance high over the orchards and meadows of mid-Manhattan. But far from moving on there was a definite intensifying of the activity of the remaining twelve. Their circling became faster, their screeches took on a more hateful pitch and then one or two together would swoop lower and lower. The Andwertyer farm – this spot where we stand Dick seemed to be the focus of their interest more than the more populated areas. The lower they swooped the louder their malign cries got and the louder the cries of terror on the ground were to match them. And cries were not all that the devils presence elicited. Soon enough the sky at the north of the island was being pricked with injun arrowpoints and further south the air resounded with the booming of panicked musketry. Soldiers at their posts in town and ordinary Dutch on their farmsteads were now taking shots at the intruders. Jeremais was coming out the Andwerter farm with his own gun in hand only to have Neeltje try to wrestle it from him claiming to shoot would only provoke them. Meanwhile little Griets eyes were fixed upon the sky for she had a sense of eyes up there fixing on her. With every downward swoop the shape of the devils was clearer. She could see that the creatures were even larger than she had thought at first; not only larger than any bird of the air that she knew of but of any creature of the forest either.
And she got a glimpse of its face too. It was a face that was almost human but not; like a wax image of a man’s face that had been close to the fire and melted some. The skin of the face was a pale olive. Its eyes were very black as was the hair on its head that ran into the black crepe like skin of its body. But the most significant feature to them was the great talons that jutted from their hands. Not curved like claws or cutlasses but dead straight and of a sharpness that made the air whistle as the creatures flew, these weapons seemed to gleam hungrily for blood. As it swooped Griet convinced herself that one creatures black eyes had singled her out from the landscape; that it had pinpointed her amongst the acres of grass, elm, birch, homesteads, haystacks and cornstalks and it was her that it had come out of its lair to attack. Little Griets body went rigid and she began to sob. She thought to herself in her own childish way Why me? What have I done? Why does it hate me so? I am blameless! A moment later her sobs spoke of relief when the creature flew back upwards into the sky but after circling and screeching some more up there another of them made as if to swoop again. Griet knew that if the creatures kept to their pattern of swooping lower each time then with the next descent one of the devils must surely reach those on the ground. She did not stop to watch its descent. The doorway to her home was barred by her struggling parents so she ran to the nearest hiding place, the cornfield. Just as she was she was submerging her head beneath that golden pool of corn a shot rang out. She turned and found the devil had already swooped down and had made a perch of the thatched roof of the Andwerter farmstead. The span of its wings reached further than the walls of that place – of THIS place, Dick! Those evil talons touched this building we are in now.  It emitted its loudest most triumphant cry yet, a screech like a needlepoint upon the ear. It was directed at Jeremais Andwerter who on seeing this violation of his home emptied his musket into the creature’s bosom. The effect of this was not a drop of blood spilt nor any visible wound created whatsoever. The screech was a cry of mockery at the terrified man; as was the furious thrashing of those huge black wings and the slicing at air with one of its talons. The Andwerters, man and wife, could do little but hold each other and wait for death.
And then the creature spoke to them. Aye: spoke! Follow this if you can Dick, this is how my Grandmother described the sensation to me. The creature made more of its evils sounds: screeches that were part human and part not. What was human in the sound was described by all as mournful, perhaps even prayerful. Some well travelled New Amsterdammers thought they recognised it as a language of the orient. When this devil screeched this time at the terrified couple – don’t ask me how – the screeches hit the ear in the same incomprehensible form but by the time the sounds slithered to little Griets brain they had formed themselves into understandable words. She heard the devil mock her parents heartlessly before - she was sure – it would kill them. From its place of dominance on the roof of their home it said:
“And so you see we have found you here Great Satan. Did you were safe here. Wherever you hide we will come for you”
Griet could look no more. She submerged her head beneath the golden pool of corn but the devils words chased her through the stalks her head filled with confusion at them. Great Satan? Surely these creatures were themselves Satan’s emirisarries.
She swam on through the golden pool of cornstalks her head submerged out of sight. She hoped to find the greatest shelter at the field’s heart but another had had the same instinct and it had been a successless venture. Griet stumbled through to an open arena which had been thrashed by another of the devils wings.  It had swooped down upon the milk maid Anneke when it spied her, like Griet, sheltering in the corn. By the time Griet stumbled upon them the devil was already resting upon Anneke’s corpse. Its thirsty blades had made a fountain of her throat.  When it caught sight of Griet it made a show of holding forward its talons letting red droplets tumble from the points and then it began licking the scarlet nectar from its talons. My grandmother always stumbled at this part of her story, though she had sixty years to refine the telling of the tale. She said she was never satisfied with the verbal portrait she painted of the creature. As she faced it at close quarters there was a clash of so many contradictions it seemed to contain within itself. Its sly visage spoke of a face worn with ancient grievances but in its eyes was the unmistakable fire of youth. There was an attempt at fearless bravado in its every gesture that yet somehow only emphasised its inner fearfulness. And besides the contradictions there was the hatred. Though it detested her (its stare spoke of a hatred for her nurtured for a hundred years before it set eyes upon her) it looked at her with fascination, as if the child was as alien a creature to it as that great winged and taloned monster was to poor Griet..
It pointed a talon at Griets heart then hissed at her through a crimson froth.  “American! I am not afraid of you. I know you. You pretend you are strong. We know you are weak and impureWe have come to destroy you American”. Again Griet felt the bewilderment of comprehending the creature’s bestial shriek and again she felt bewilderment at its words. She had never heard the term American applied to a person. This landscape its hills and rivers were sometimes called American, types of trees, of animals, of fruit or fur or vegetables were American but never people. Griet and her family were Dutch. “Home” was Feisland. Yet there was no doubt that as the devil stared at her with all imaginable fascination, envy, contempt, loathing and fear that an American was the creature it believed Griet to be and that was why she deserved harm.
“You thought you were safe across the sea. You never thought we would come for you here-well now we have. You cling to you’re lands and your happiness. We have lost our own lands so we have no happiness. It is our burden but it is also our strength. We have no fear. We love death as you love life. Oblivion is but a gateway to paradise.”  Unappalled by tiny Griets terror it edged towards her. The slight movement of its wings wafted the perfume of cobwebs spun then abandoned in lightless sepulchres, of crumbled bone and worm eaten flesh. It repeated a phrase that was much polished and much nurtured “We love death as you love life”.
But as Griet waited and trembled for those talons on her flesh, the devil suddenly thrashed its wings and shot straight upwards to join its demonic brothers in the air. It left poor Annecke limp and lifeless on the spot where it had stood and Griet whimpered in pity for the tattered remains of her unfortunate enemy.
“Griet! Griet my darling”. Her mother’s voice! The creature had spared her parents and flown back into the sky with the other devil leaving the slash marks from its talons in the thatched roof. Within moments Griet had scurried from the cornfield and was clasped to her mother’s bosom but the relief for either of them was brief. The other devil had abandoned their rooftop but all of them continued to fly low around the farmhouse. They were circling and that spot – this spot- seemed to be the centre of there attention. After much tearful argument and tearful feminine pleading, Neeltje persuaded Jeremais not to attempt to defend the farmhouse. Jeremais was more easily persuaded of Neeltje’s rightness this time after his weapon had proved so useless against the devil who had mocked him. Little Griet was cursed to see on her fathers face the expression of a broken man. He agreed they should, the three of them, run to the town of New Amsterdam and seek shelter there, though none of them knew if the town would prove any more impermeable to such unnatural assault than their own homestead had been. There were tears in the eyes of all of them as they began to run from their home but there was no time for a sentimental farewell. Every fleeing step they took they could hear the beating of wings as one or more of the devils swooped again.
As the three of them ran for the town of New Amsterdam, southwards down Maidens path and onto what we now call Broadway, they were passed by Anthony. His great ebony, muscular limbs speed him on at a pace the Andwerters could not manage especially since Neeltje carried Griet in her arms.
“Give me the child”. He beseeched them to their astonishment.
“If you are going to New Amsterdam. I’ll carry Griet


© Copyright 2019 crowefoot. All rights reserved.

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