By O. Lucio d’Arc
THE STEPS ARE creaky, the walls are damp, the smell is ranker as they descend the staircase.
As far as you can tell from a dingy bare light bulb casting gloomy shadows, it looks like any old –accent on old – basement. Old furnace, a huge old oil tank, dirty cardboard boxes stacked in lazy piles, crumbling wooden shelves, old bicycles, dusty trunks, a ringer washing machine in the latest décor color: rust.
All overhung with cobwebs and spider traps, the floor littered with rat spoor and stains of Goddess knows what.
Magnum makes straight for a small wooden room in a corner at the front of the house.
“What’s that?” Carole asks.
“Looks like a coal bin,” says Silver Boy.
“A what …? says Scott Free.
“A coal bin, where they stored their coal. The coal came in on a chute through the window there, from the coal truck on the street.”
Silver Boy has a flashlight he has grabbed from a kitchen drawer, and he shines it into the coal bin. It illuminates something in the back wall that is unexpected: a door with a wooden bar across it.
Magnum lifts the bar and drags open the wooden door, the edges of which crumble into a pile of rot.
“While I’ve oft opened this sad door, I’ve never gone this way before,” rhymes Magnum.
They’ve all forgotten about their rides, their plane tickets, about mostly everything. They are right in the moment.
Scott Free, dressed too neatly for a basement and coalbin, produces his own flashlight that he carries on his keychain. It’s not strong, but he shines it through the doorway, revealing mossy stone steps leading downward into darkness.
“Shall we?” asks Silver Boy. The others turn their heads away, look at their feet or look back the way they came. Carole knows Scott Free, brave as he is, is reluctant. In fact, he’d be the last one who would want to go deeper into that freaking old house.
“Hey, why not?” says Diz, grabbing Scott Free’s penlight and letting Silver Boy lead the way with his brighter torch. “We’ve come this far. And I always go all the way,” she adds, winking at Carole over her shoulder.
Nobody is dressed for this. Most of them, except Scott Free, are wearing sandals. Their tees and denim shorts are not much good because it gets colder as they slowly descend. And darker, despite the flashlights.
Fearless Silver Boy has picked up a shovel somewhere, a small one that must have been used to fill the coal bucket.
At the bottom of the steps is a small room, a cavern of sorts, cold and damp, apparently carved out of stone, with three passages leading off of it. Water drips loudly down one wall and runs in a stone gutter and disappears into a hole in the corner of the floor.
“We must be under the old pond,” says Silver Boy. He walks into the center of the room.
As if on cue, strange sounds come from the other corridors, like talking or singing, but they can’t make it out. They run as one back toward the stone stairway and turn around when they realize Silver Boy isn’t with them. He is still standing in the center of the room, turning slowly in a circle, waving the shovel like a sword.
From each of the three passageways a figure emerges, ragged wraiths, ghostly, slightly luminescent, a man and two women, judging from their clothes, if you can call them that. More a suggestion of clothes, raiments once but now wretched rags covering mostly, it seems, bones. Bones you can see through.
They approach Silver Boy, who is brandishing the shovel, scared but threatening at the same time. He seems to be taunting them. He strikes the smaller women in the skull with the shovel and she falls to the ground. The shovel hitting the woman makes a strange, hollow sound. Silver Boy turns to face the man and moves toward him, holding the shovel over his head. The taller women grabs him by the throat and he falls to the ground and lies still.
Scott Free collapses. Diz and Carole kneel by him and try to get him to stand. Magnum dashes toward the doorway where they had come in, but in his blind haste smashes into a wall, breaking his nose. He rolls like a rodeo clown and gets up quickly, but he can’t find the doorway. All four of them turn and face the three wraiths. They stand together, Silver Boy’s motionless body at their feet.
The taller woman speaks. It is a language they had never heard. She speaks for a long time before she realizes from their faces they do not understand her. She looks to the man beside her.
“We are the Gibsons,” he says with a heavy accent. “All that are left.”
The taller woman nods. “Grivort,” she says, looking at the man. “Stenlil,” she says, pointing to the shorter woman, who has regained her feet and stands by the other two. The taller woman touches where her chest should have been. “Magla,” she says.
The man, Grivort, takes over. “We are the Jibzcon of Hungary, but when we came here, to this country, to this city, they always called us Gibsons, so we did not disagree,” he says.
The four Doldrummers are cowering against the wall, holding each other tightly. Diz pulls out a bone and lights it. No one objects. They pass it around with shaky hands. It settles them down, making everything kind of familiarly unreal.
“We will not harm you if you do not harm us – as he did,” says Grivort, pointing to Silver Boy’s body on the dank floor. “Sit, and we will talk.”
They slide down the wall in unison and sit on the cold, wet floor. The three Gibsons stand in front of them, about 10 feet away, almost, it seems, floating. The four toke ‘til it’s gone.
Grivort told them the story of the Jibzcon family, their migration to America and finally Bethlehem, from their native Hungary. How they worked in the sweat shops, anywhere, doing anything they could, including digging the subway tunnels for New York City, just down the highway and over the bridge from Bethlehem. The family saved, they pooled their money to buy the house now called The Doldrums. They farmed, they raised chickens, they fished the fresh pond behind the house. They survived. Some of them.
They started out as a family of nine, but six were gone – one crushed to death in the tunnels, the other five beaten, raped, tortured, imprisoned or hung on streetlight poles by gangs of xenophobic good citizens of Bethlehem. One frightful night the three before us fled to the basement, through the coal bin to the natural cave beneath the pond.
Magla. Her son Grivort. Her daughter Stentil.
They sneaked out at first, every night, for food and water, and then less and less frequently. They seemed to need little, and then less, to keep them going. They lost track of bodily needs, of time, of purpose, of life. “Perhaps we died,” says Grivort. “We don’t know. We live here and we remember. Now, sometimes, we go up and move among you, and you cannot see us if we don’t want you to. But there is nothing we want up there,” he says, pointing. “We are not sure what we are, but we are at peace of a sort, safe…”
“We mean you no harm,” he adds.
“Can we leave?” asks Scott Free, regaining his voice for the first time.
Magla says something to Grivort in their language. He replies. They all three look at the Doldrummers.
“Not until you swear to tell no one about us,” says Grivort. “And not until you tell us why you are here.”
Oreste P. D’Arconte, who writes fiction under the name O. Lucio d’Arc, is a retired newspaper publisher and a weekly newspaper columnist. His short stories have appeared in the Murder Inc. trilogy of anthologies and he has had his poetry published in several literary magazines. A resident of Attleboro, Mass., he also wrote a hardback history of the Attleboro YMCA in 2017.