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His name is Jeremiah Fall. A soldier of fortune, he has been fighting his own war for 150 years–ever since the beast in him was born.
Desperate to restore his lost humanity, Fall crosses the sands of Egypt, discovers a lost city off the coast of France, and finally arrives at the birthplace of all mankind. Shunning daylight and feeding only when he must, he battles the monster who transformed him forever. He can share his deepest secret with no one . . . not even the beautiful woman he starts to love, the only human who grasps the mysteries of an ebony stone as old as creation itself.
Across the world, across time, Fall seeks the stone’s secret. But has he found a cure for himself or unleashed a final curse on all mankind?
Table of Contents
THE BEAST UNBURIED
Jeremiah thought he was seeing some brown and muddy tree-part until it bent at the elbow and splayed the bony fingers of its hand. Shapes like a shoulder and chest followed, covered by dirt-brown skin the texture of cured leather. A second arm wrenched itself free, a thick rope dangling from the wrist. There followed a horribly oblong head.
Jeremiah fought to believe it was a sickly bear they'd woken, but the scene before him looked more as if Satan himself had dug his way up from Hell.
The thing turned toward Jeremiah's father. It opened its mouth. Jeremiah saw the yellow-white teeth glisten, like the fangs of a wolf.
Jeremiah ran toward his father, but the Devil was faster. With speed and grace as wolf-like as its fangs, it leapt…
April 14, 1644
Dedham, a township of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
Even with the sun tempered by the tall pines lining the field, Jeremiah Fall sweltered in the simple clothes of the godly. His broad-brimmed hat was stifling. His shirt clung to the sweat on his back. His legs baked inside the black pants. If only the plow weren't stuck again. Straining against it, he feared passing out, until a final, forceful push sent his hand skidding along the handle, where a wooden shard stabbed the meat below his thumb.
"Ah!" he said, clenching his teeth. He should've checked to see what blocked the plow. His impatience could've cost them the blade. Hurt, angry with himself, his father's favorite aphorism came to mind: Arrogance is folly.
His shame would be double if Nathan had seen. Fortunately, his father was too busy struggling with a second, ox-pulled, plow to notice.
The ox, though, turned its wide eyes toward Jeremiah in seeming judgment. Mary Vincent, his mother, had named it Patience. If merriment were not forbidden, he'd swear she'd done it as a joke.
Arrogance is folly. An important lesson. Pulling the sliver free from his hand recalled another; splinters hurt more coming out than going in.
As a thread of blood inched along his thumb, Jeremiah sighed and inspected the plow head. A rough sphere nested in the dirt. Another rock to be dug out by hand.
Meanwhile, Nathan and the ox began their fifth line for the day. They'd hoped for fifteen, but after the first hour, Grandfather Atticus was too tired to help. This next line would be the first to cross the mound that marred the terrain's flatness. What would his father do, Jeremiah wondered, when he reached this thing that looked like the dome of a buried giant's head? Suspicion of anything unknown might make him till around it. The Faithful, named Puritans by those who scorned them, were forever uncertain which parts of the New World offered Eden, which hell. But the Falls were also stubborn.
Atticus, Dedham's unofficial ambassador to the natives, said the mound was a mystery even to Kanti, the female leader, or sachem, of the small Algonquin village a few miles north. Hard to tell, though, how much his addled grandfather heard and how much he'd imagined hearing. One thing was certain: The Algonquin were convinced it was too early to break new soil. There'd likely be another snow.
Nathan, loath to heed native advice, refused to wait. Like the townsfolk, he felt the only purpose of contact was to draw the Algonquin closer to the Lord, not to be drawn into their savage ways. But wouldn't some advice be welcome? In Essex, the Falls had been carpenters, and in all their years here they had gained little expertise with the land. Could it still snow? To Jeremiah, the air smelled of spring. Even the forest didn't offer its usual foreboding sounds and shadows, only the playful breeze.
No, not only.
At the tree line, some low, wavering shadows coalesced into human form. Jeremiah tensed, wary of an Indian attack, until he recognized the figure. It was Chogan, the young Algonquin who enjoyed watching their labors. Speaking of arrogance, the boy's grin made it clear he'd been seen only because he'd allowed it. The Algonquin didn't consider pride a sin.
Still, the question behind the smile seemed reasonable to Jeremiah: "Why don't you take our advice? Snow is coming. Why work so hard for nothing?"
How often had Jeremiah explained that labor brought them closer to God? How all men were sinners since Adam was made from the dust, only the chosen fated to find heaven? A man made from dirt was the only part Chogan understood, and that only because it matched some heathen belief. If Jeremiah did return to school, maybe he'd find a better way to explain. Not today. The boy was already gone.
"Jeremiah, come quench your thirst!" Atticus called. The familial connection between the three men was written on them as clearly as the begats in the Bible. The only difference was the blue eyes Jeremiah shared with his mother. "It's a harmless hunger. Chogan would tell you the same."
Nathan halted Patience. "We do not follow the example of the godless."
Atticus cackled. "How can they be godless if God created them?"
Nathan gritted his teeth. Atticus's loose speech had caused them trouble for years. The voyage to the New World had turned to months. As they starved, a storm had hit. Jeremiah's infant brother was swept overboard. Ever since, the old man had given voice to the most questionable thoughts. More recently, the fever, which weakened him and brought Jeremiah back from school, left his tongue even less willing to censor them.
Nathan tried to be patient. "I beg you remember the second article of the covenant I put my name to so we might join this township: 'We shall by all means labor to keep off from us all such as are contrary minded…' "
Atticus's eyes lit up as if he were possessed by an impish squirrel. "Then all Dedham should be empty! I've yet to meet a man whose mind wasn't contrary to itself."
As Nathan's brow furrowed, the sweat that had accumulated in his thick eyebrows ran down the side of his face. "Don't play with the words as if this were a game, father!"
"Why not? The Lord plays with words!" He held aloft his prized Geneva Bible. "Thou shalt not eat of the tree of knowledge, for on that day, thou shalt die! Yet Adam lived 930 years! Matthew tells us the Lord said, 'He that is not with me is against me,' yet Luke tells us He said, 'he that is not against us is with us!' What is this if not play?"
For years, Dedham had tolerated Atticus. His exchanges with the Algonquin kept the community abreast of their plans. But since his fever, the old man went too far.
"Each time you speak, talk of our expulsion grows. Never mind how you destroy the chance of Jeremiah's return to the Harvard School. What becomes of us when homeless?"
"What do they say in town?" Jeremiah asked.
Nathan shook his head. "They recall we are the family who arrived on that cursed ship long ago, that we were shunned at Watertown even though they sorely needed carpenters." His hand shook as he wiped the sweat from his brow. "Make certain the work is its own reward. Do not think too much on school." He added, "But, take that drink. We've yet some time before darkness."
Obeying, Jeremiah walked to his grandfather and took the ladle.
"Dying doesn't frighten me, only the thought I might keep you from school," the old man said.
"Don't worry, grandfather. The extra yield from these acres will surely let father hire John Fisher to make up for…" His voice trailed off.
The old man nudged him. "For my becoming half a man. Half mad. I know. But I'm helpless against it. Though it's over a decade past, the tempest that struck our ship remains inside me like the whirlwind that appeared to Job."
"Go back to the house for a nap. You're tired."
Atticus crinkled the skin around his brown eyes. "I'm too awake."
Jeremiah patted his grandfather's shoulder, surprised how bony it was.
"Jeremiah, Jeremiah," Atticus went on. "The prophet Jeremiah went down to the potter's house and saw the potter break the vessel he was working on. So the potter abandoned it and made another. Then the Lord said to Jeremiah, 'Cannot I do with you as this potter does? As the clay is in the potter's hand, so are you in mine.' "
The sun sank lower, the air shifting from cool to cold, as if something thick and powerful had rolled into the field alongside them. A chill moved up along his back. Atticus's dismal tone haunted him, certainly, but was this sudden dread just despair or were his senses trying to warn him of something real?
There was something different. He turned, planning to tell his father, only to see that Nathan had led his ox to the edge of the rounded earth. He was at the moment of deciding, go around or through?
The word Kanti used to describe not the mound but its essence was chepi. Atticus likened it to the stories of the fairy folk he'd heard in Essex, demoted angels thrown from heaven. Not evil enough for hell, they roamed the earth kidnapping babes from their cradles. Kanti assured him it had more to do with a long-ago plague that nearly wiped out the Abenaki tribe. An Abenaki might know more, but their new settlements were far north, among the French.
Was it Abenaki ghosts Jeremiah felt watching from the woods?
Nathan ordered Patience forward. The ox dutifully put its cloven feet upon the rising earth, pulling the plow behind. As the metal blade edged forward, concern flickered across Nathan's face. Did he feel the dread, too? No, it was mere annoyance, the expectation of hitting another rock. As the plow slid deep into the mound, quickly and easily, Nathan Fall smiled.
Jeremiah hadn't seen his father smile since before the loss of baby Jim at sea. His mother claimed he had smiled the day Jeremiah left home for Boston to exchange his skills as a carpenter for academic lessons. While he believed her, he'd not seen it with his own eyes. As the dirt yielded further, the satisfaction on his father's face was clear.
Perhaps he was thinking that now the field might be sown in time and Jeremiah could return to school. What he said was, "It's all right, Jeremiah. It's soft, like clay."
But arrogance is folly.
The plow suddenly rolled sideways. Patience lowed in distress and seemed to be sinking. Jeremiah thought the plow's weight must be dragging the ox down, but strangely, the creature's thin bovine legs, though scrambling, moved downward in the opposite direction.
Had they hit a deep hollow, a sinkhole?
With their sole ox in danger, Nathan didn't hesitate. He leaped atop the mound, drew the small scythe from his side and freed the animal from the harnass with two quick swipes. But Patience continued to sink, as if something beneath the dirt were drawing the creature down. Nathan grabbed the ox by the horns, stared into its panicked eyes, and shouted, "Harr!"
Patience obediently stiffened and attempted to stand.
It seemed the danger was over until the ox's large form jutted back toward the hole as if yanked. From what Jeremiah could see, the animal's back leg was caught on a thick root. Patience kicked free of it and stumbled down the mound, nearly knocking Nathan over in the process.
The thing that had held the ox, however, continued to rise. Jeremiah thought he was seeing some brown and muddy tree part until it bent at the elbow and splayed the bony fingers of its hand. Shapes like shoulder and chest followed, both covered by skin the texture of cured leather. A second arm wrenched itself into the air, a thick rope dangling from the wrist. There followed a horribly oblong head.
Jeremiah fought to convince himself it was a sickly bear they'd woken, but it looked more as if Satan himself had dug his way up from hell.
Patience limped across the field, blood flowing down its back leg, leaving the thing to turn toward Nathan. The shifting of its body revealed a visage that at first brought to mind a tangled mass of dried grass and peat. Then it opened its mouth. Even from this distance, Jeremiah saw the yellow-white teeth glisten against the dark earth of its form, like the fangs of a wolf bursting into moonlight while night rendered its body invisible.
Jeremiah ran toward his father, but the Devil was faster. Free of the mound, it snapped the remaining rope that bound its legs and pushed aside the fallen plow. The earthen-brown layer covering it, which Jeremiah had taken for its skin, fell off in wet clumps with each muscle it moved. What lay beneath, its true skin, was the same, but lighter in hue. With speed and grace as wolflike as its fangs, it leaped. In midair, it craned its neck forward, as if those bared teeth could pull it forward faster. As it flew, what looked like a long head fell away. The oblong thing slapped to the ground, stems of aged feathers rising. A headdress?
As Jeremiah prayed for more speed, the figure grabbed Nathan's neck and drew him to its teeth, sharp and distinct, and bit into his neck. Jeremiah shivered, a queasy nausea erupting in his stomach.
Nathan tried to hit the creature, to injure it or push it away, but the efforts of his strong arms looked like the thrashing of grass against boulder. His father's neck was split open like the spring lamb they'd killed last year, and the creature drank the spurting fluids. As it sucked in Nathan's blood, the skin around its neck thickened, its shoulders reddened, and its chest swelled.
Jeremiah knew it was too late. His father's body no longer fought, but twitched. Refusing to trust his intuition, he jumped onto the length of the sideways plow and hurled himself into the thing. He hit with his full weight, but the thing didn't fall, and instead moved only an inch along the mound's soft earth. Jeremiah's gaze met two lidless eyes. They looked more like stolen eggs embedded in a rat nest, their whites marred by the tiny branches of dead veins, the pupils sparking with an old, angry hunger.
Trying to grab hold, Jeremiah's hands scrambled against its rough form. Some of the ash-brown hide was vaguely supple, like half-dried beef, the rest hard as stone. When he pulled at it, his fingers slipped as they had on the plow, earning not splinters but drier clumps of dirt, revealing the pallid skin of a corpse beneath.
What was it? What was this world that it could have made such a thing?
The creature's back, no longer protected by dirt, was now struck by sunlight. The thing went rigid. Smoke snaked from its body. There was a loud hissing like water on hot coals. The light burned it.
Though Jeremiah's instinct wanted him only to join Patience and flee, the mind Atticus had praised mere moments ago forced him into attacking again. This time, he didn't try to move it or hurt it. Instead he focused on pulling away as much of the earth covering as he could, bringing to light more and more of its gray skin. As he did, he thought he saw the remains of a breechcloth and leggings on its unearthly body.
Recognizing Jeremiah as the cause of its increasing pain, the creature paused from feeding long enough to swat him away. Years ago, Jeremiah had been knocked down in a fistfight when an older youth called his grandfather insane, but this was different, more like swinging by rope into the face of a tree. Jeremiah's neck felt twisted. As he tried to stand, his legs did not wish to cooperate. He forced himself to his feet, but he was swaying, uncertain how long he'd stay conscious.
He thought he'd lost this fight and likely his life, until the grotesque odor of burning flesh assailed his nostrils. His mind had found the right thing—perhaps the only thing—to do.
Its skin reddened and curled in large round wounds, as if eaten like bark in a fire. Air rushed from its mouth as if it were trying to scream. At first, it didn't stop assaulting Nathan, but its agony soon surpassed its urge to feed. It picked its head up, chin and cheek glistening with blood. It hesitated as if weighing whether to drag Nathan off with it, then dropped him and raced for the shade.
Jeremiah staggered to his fallen father and cradled his bleeding form.
Eyes no longer focused, Nathan muttered, "Patience. Save Patience or Mary Vincent will be upset."
"The ox is safe," Jeremiah whispered, though he had no idea if that was true.
It had all happened so fast. Atticus neared them only now, croaking as his lungs gasped for breath, "Nathan… Nathan…"
Jeremiah didn't look at his grandfather. His gaze was torn, head snapping back and forth, between his dying father and the thing racing for the woods, thicker and thicker tendrils of smoke curling from its form. As it disappeared among the trees, it found its voice, screaming long and loud, not just in anguish but in unmistakable fury.
As the screeching drenched him with fear, the words came to Jeremiah again: Arrogance is folly.
He wondered, did the aphorism apply to the Devil's world as well as God's?
Three days later, the snows came, thick and heavy. Day and night, a mad wind whipped the white air, covering hills and woods, river and sky. Cold whiteness veiled the farmhouses and filled the lanes. At first, the snow left the echoes of shapes, but in time, it covered those until nothing recognizable remained.
"Thou art all my good in times of peace, my only support in days of trouble…" Mary Vincent Fall said.
In the sudden, tumultuous privacy of their grief, only she spoke of salvation as she cooked and kept the fire burning in their stone and brick hearth. Atticus was left with moans and mumbles, half singing, half chanting whatever Bible passages came to mind. Jeremiah didn't speak at all.
"Thou art my one sufficiency when life shall end."
For now, she seemed content to keep them fed and warm, looking forward not only to the afterlife, but also to the day a headstone could be set on her husband's grave. It would have a winged skull carved on each side of the tympanum, signifying the journey from the physical to the spirit, and once it was complete, paying for it would cost them much of their savings.
Jeremiah knew he'd have to discuss their more mortal future with her soon, but was loath to add to her burden by telling her the Falls would soon be expelled. His own heart was torn between numbness at his father's horrid death and anger at all of Dedham for what seemed a betrayal, not only of his family but of common decency.
The morning following the attack, when Jeremiah asked for help in laying his father to rest, Goodman Broggin, the thick-limbed, slow-thinking patriarch of one of the few families who'd even bothered to visit, had said, "The ground, it's too frozen."
It was only when Jeremiah and Atticus took their shovels and left to dig the hole themselves that the other men were shamed into assisting. After the burial, they followed Jeremiah to the broken mound, shaking their heads at him and his story. There he found the rotting headdress, thinking it would be the proof of his word. It fell apart in his hands, looking like mere clumps of mud.
Jeremiah asked them, for their own good, to help track the thing, but Broggin, apparently now their spokesman, predicted it would be useless.
It was at the end of that conversation that Chogan, his father, and Kanti arrived. More of the tribe wished to come and show their respect, but Jeremiah refused them, fearing how the townsfolk would react. The Algonquin however were willing to track the beast, and their effort assured them something had been there. They wondered though—could it have been a wolf with mange that left its skin exposed? Or even the enormous bear that had killed both brave and colonist these last two springs? Might Jeremiah be mistaken about the headdress, breechcloth, and leggings?
When Jeremiah insisted he was not, Kanti promised to do what she could to find an Abenaki, someone who might know more about the mound and its chepi.
Goodman Broggin, who'd been holding his tongue since their arrival, objected at once. "Do not think to have heathen stories told on this land," he said.
Jeremiah was never clear if the man spoke so slowly for effect or due to a sluggish mind. In either case, he could not conceal his anger. "It murders," he said. "We must learn what it is to protect ourselves. What matters the source of the truth?"
"Truth has but one source," Broggin announced. The finality with which he spoke made Jeremiah realize that in this man's mind he'd crossed the same line as his grandfather.
If that were not the last proof that the Falls were contrary-minded, the intimacy displayed between his family and the Algonquin was. As the godly left, Goodman Broggin muttered, one slow word at a time, "On this field, the Devil took his own."
Jeremiah knew only the snows delayed their judgment. "Better to expel them in warmer weather, lest we be cruel," he imagined them saying.
But the storm had come, so sudden and so furious, he knew some in Dedham would foolishly think the Algonquin had summoned it.
As the wind moaned on the night of the third day, Mary Vincent sat stiff-backed, head down, hands folded in her lap. A steaming bowl of stew lay on the table in front of her untouched. Her bonnet made her sad face a perfect oval, the stark blueness of her eyes providing the brightest color in the room. Their one window was boarded over, because they, like all God's Elect in the New World, would rather not see outside once the day was done. They preferred to huddle in something more akin to a cave.
How could he tell her? How could he not? He reached out, held her hand, and tried to think of the softest way.
"Come spring we should think to move," he said.
She continued staring down into her lap. "I cannot leave your father."
"Mother, the townsfolk no longer trust us."
"Then we must trust in providence."
"Roger Williams has a new colony in Rhode Island. They ask for agreement only in civil things and allow each man to worship and believe as he will."
She shook her head. "Nathan would not like that. His name remains on Dedham's covenant."
"A covenant is a pact between two sides. Whose vegetables are in this stew, those of the godly or the Algonquin?"
Her eyes shot up and searched his face. She pressed her small hand to his forehead as if to rub the thoughts out of it. "Jeremiah, watch your words. You begin to sound like…" Her voice trailed off as Atticus moaned.
For a moment, it felt as if they were the only three people left in the entire world, until a pounding came at the door. The hard thud shook dirt free from between the timbers and left a dusty cloud in the air. The Fall homestead was typically small, a single room of sixteen by twenty with a sleeping loft, so the sound and its vibration were intimately near.
Mary Vincent's hand flew to her chest, and she gasped. Jeremiah leaped from his seat at the table. Atticus raised his head so slowly he looked as if he'd been dreaming and was still not completely awake.
"Some snow has fallen from the roof to the front of the house," Jeremiah said. "It's good and warm in here from the fire. But perhaps I should make certain the door's not blocked it."
Part of him worried it wasn't snow at all. He didn't open the door, instead examining it, reassuring himself it would hold even against the thing that had killed his father. Unlike the rest of the house, made from the ample pine already on their land, Nathan insisted that the door and its frame be good, strong oak. Having heard how Dedham's first settlers lived in hollowed-out bits of earth with barely a roof, he wanted to ensure his family would be safe because, as a carpenter, he could.
Sensing Jeremiah's concern, Mary Vincent touched her son's wrist. "I'm fine. The noise just startled me. Sit and eat more, please. There's plenty. I'm not yet used to preparing meals for three. It would be a sin to have my folly lead to waste."
Jeremiah was about to smile at her when a second sound, louder, echoed through the cabin. This one didn't come from the door. It came from the roof, above the sleeping loft.
"A tree branch?" Jeremiah suggested.
But they knew there were no trees above their cabin, only sky and storm. All stared upward as the wood creaked and the thud came again.
If the moment were not tense enough, Atticus, still staring at the ceiling, recited, "Who is this that darkeneth the counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man: I will demand of thee and declare thou unto me!"
Was that the Book of Job? The man tortured based on a wager between God and the Devil?
Jeremiah hissed, "Be silent, grandfather!"
More thuds came, moving bit by bit along the roof, then down along the brick and stone chimney. There they changed to harsh scrapes and clicks.
That's where the wood is weakest, Jeremiah thought.
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2010
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing