The Lord of Old Manse County

He was dead, that was certain. Caroline Auger's father was pronouncedly dead and buried. The funeral had been earlier that day, and she had been there to suffer through the whole affair. It was brought off well, with typical New England Protestant solemnity and directness. The minister, who had known the family for years, kept the whole service nice and compact, speaking to the patriarch's place in the community, the particularities of his character, and his assured place in the Holy Kingdom of God. Then the whole thing was moved to the grave site, and the old man was officially returned to the ground. Her mother had cried. Her two brothers had their faces contorted in grief, wanting to be strong, not wanting to show how they felt so lost and alone now that they were without the old man who always seemed to have the answers. All Caroline could think about was sleep.

Now she was at the reception, standing in the living room of her childhood home, now filled with her father's friends, old business associates, fellow lodge members, people he had served on various community boards with, strangers, family members of various kinds and degrees. A second cousin twice removed (or at least that's what she thought he was, pretty sure anyways, regardless, a man of some relation) who had also been on a city planning committee with the old man came up to her and gave her a full hug, nearly spilling her glass of wine with his ardent sympathy. "I'm so sorry," the man said, nearly vomiting sincerity. "If there's anything you need, you let me know. Anything. Got me?" She assured him that she did. He gave her a pat on the shoulder and walked off, more likely than not to tell the other sorrow gawkers how well she was holding up, all things considered.

She had wanted to laugh at him. Well, perhaps not at him. Certainly not with him, but she had no desire to be cruel, either. She had wanted to grab him, pull him close, stare him down, and whisper conspiratorially into his ear, "Anything?" Then drag him over to the one bookcase in the house no one was standing near, the one that housed volumes of books her father had collected on the occult (one of her father's more odd hobbies). Then pull a random book from the shelf and say to the man with all possible intensity, "He knew this was going to happen. He earmarked an old witch’s spell that would bring him back. Meet me tonight, midnight, at his gravesite. Bring a shovel, a goat and a 12 inch knife."

Just when it seemed like everyone was running out of steam and perhaps the party would break, someone put Creedence Clearwater Revival's Chronicles, vol. 1 on the stereo. Suddenly conversations picked up anew. CCR had been Harold Auger's favorite, and it seemed like everyone had a story about Harold and his love of the band. An old high school friend told the story about how Harold had shown up at his house in his father's car, borrowed without permission, and hijacked him to see Creedence play a huge outdoor concert in Connecticut in 1970. Her mother, who had the good fortune to be named Susan, recalled how Harold had proposed after his college band, The Snake Charmers, had played "Suzy Q" at a frat party their senior year.

Caroline knew what was coming. The mirth would only last so long, and once the album came around to "Long As I Can See The Light" the weight of death would be back on everyone's shoulders. Certainly by the album's final number, "Someday Never Comes," her brothers would be drunk and blubbering and everyone else would either run away or dedicate themselves to Sympathy Duty, and then they would never leave. Caroline knew she had to be somewhere, but she'd be damned if it was going to be in the midst of that mess. She made her way to the one room in the house where she would be able to get the contemplative silence she needed. She went to her father's study room.

Harold Auger's study had always been a bit of a family joke. Harold had been a constant reader and scribbler, filling every room in the house with books and notepads filled with anything and everything that had ever struck his fancy. The only room in the house completely devoid of literature, notepads or desks of any kind was the study. That room had been chosen to house Harold's toy train landscape, a terraform he had tinkered with since childhood. The whole structure was built on a base of supports that came about four feet off the ground. The landscape was pushed to every corner of the room so entirely that as soon as one opened the door to the room one was met with four feet of woodwork topped with a fake forest that Harold would immediately tell any young entrant to not touch, because it was rumored to be haunted.

In order to get to the central viewing area it was necessary to crawl underneath the fake earth, getting down on hands and knees to enter a designed crawlspace. As Caroline made her way through the tunnel, she ran across the only other member of the Auger family who seemed aloof and disconnected in the midst of this mourning dance. Cotton Mather, the large white cat of dubious origins her father had rescued from underneath a dumpster six years ago, lounged fat and content in the middle of the crawlspace. "Move it, Cotton. Come on, buddy," Caroline pleaded, trying to gently nudge the cat along, until finally she had to resort to pushing the feline the final three feet into the room's center.

Caroline stood and purveyed the expanse of territory her father had dubbed Old Manse County. Harold Auger had ruled over the area like a god, creating the world out of his imagination and the many enthusiast catalogues he would buy every few months. He was a benevolent god, but he was no coddler. The inch-tall residents of Old Manse County were born, bred and died under the watchful eye of Harold Auger. Harold Auger giveth Thaddeus Merriwether, the town's miller, a windfall due to a mysterious and unknown uncle's passing in a faraway county. Harold Auger taketh away the infant son of the mayor and his wife, a tragic case of crib death. "Just because they're an inch tall, doesn't mean they should get it easy," an impressionably young Caroline had been told after witnessing Lord Auger enact a terrible draught on Old Man Swanson's corn harvest. "How can a man an inch tall hope to become big if he gets all the breaks?"

Despite his penchant for dramatic pragmatism, the god of Old Manse County was not without a sense of magic or whimsy. There were, of course, the hypothetically haunted woods of the south. There was also Old Lady Flanagan, who lived in the remote western territory. It was strongly believed by the locals that she was a witch due to the strange occurrences that would happen near her residence (odd isolated storms, large gatherings of sheep and wolves together without incident, and in one particularly overstated case the spelling of the word “witch” in flowers on her lawn). However, since none of these incidents seemed particularly malicious, the townspeople just chalked it up to local color and outside of a few bored kids, Old Lady Flanagan was left to her own devices.

The real treat, though, was the mountain pass. In the east portion of the room was a piece of mountain that Old Manse County’s oft-dependable train would go through. There were times, though, when the train would be running its usual course, but when it entered the mountain it would stop, remaining hidden within its unseeable innards. Lord Auger would ignore this event until one of the children noticed the train had gone.

“Dad! Dad!” Caroline would yell. “Where’s the train?!?”

“Holy smokes, I don’t know!” Harold Auger would yell back, throwing his arms to his head in panic. “I can’t see inside a mountain! ANYTHING could be happening in there!” And thus the game would begin. The children and the old man would run through the many theories as to what could possibly be occurring within the large chunk of fake rock that could be holding up the train so.

“Train robbers!” Sam, the youngest, would guess.

“No,” Tim would interject. “They’re helping Frodo Baggins.” Often Tim would mold the contours of Old Manse County to fit whatever particular book series or television show he was into at the time. His Doctor Who years made these exercises particularly painful.

“It’s a unicorn parade!” Caroline would say, always the one to get most excited about the game.

“Unicorns? That’s ridiculous!” Her father would counter. “It would obviously be a howler monkey parade!” Harold would break into his howler monkey impression, and the children were instantly thrown into fits of hysterical laughter. Once the hysteria had reached its highest point, Harold would flip the train back on undetected, and the train would once again leave the mountain. Although the children begged and pleaded with their father, he would always insist that the train passengers were sworn to secrecy about their mountain experience. In that fashion the game was played for years.

Caroline sat staring at her father’s personally crafted domain. She contemplated the power switch that would start the train, but decided against it. She peered at the entrance to the mountain tunnel. She wondered what her mother, who had never quite understood the fascination with Old Manse County, would do with it. What sort of terrible Salvation Army apocalypse awaited the inhabitants? What would the destruction of the mystical mountain reveal? Caroline was fairly certain that the inside of the mountain was probably made of the same stuff as the rest of the design, all wood, foam and cardboard. Yet even now as a young woman out in the workaday world, she hoped that her father had perhaps taken the time to fill the mountain with something. She hoped that there actually was some secret within it that had kept the children guessing all those years. Whether there was something there or not, she did not want to find out. She made a mental note to herself that if mom were going to take down the study, she would make sure she wasn’t there when it happened.

Just then the door to the study opened and a somewhat drunk Curtis Tiptown leaned against the doorframe.

“Figured you’d be in here. You really should get out there, everyone’s wondering where you are and your mom’s doing one of her things. You know, her concerned hostess things. Only moreso, you know, since this is... what it is.”

Caroline had grown up with Curtis and was well aware that he had always had a bit of a thing for her. He was a good guy, a bit of an oaf, and Caroline certainly loved him in her way. That way, however, wasn’t that way. The way Curtis had wanted. This had caused a small number of spats between them, but nothing they hadn’t been able to overcome, and they still considered each other best friends. However, there were certainly times, particularly drunken times, where these undertones in their relationship would surface.

“Thank you, Curtis. I’ll be out in a minute. If you would please let them know I’ll be there soon. And shut the door.”

“How you holding up? Need any help?” Curtis asked, his lean beginning to sway, suggesting that if he finished the bourbon in his hand he would be the one needing holding up.

“No Curtis. I’m fine. Thank you.”


“You don’t have to be this way, you know. Look, I’m coming in.” Curtis began to stagger his way down to the crawlspace

“Curtis, don’t come in. I’m fine. Please go away.”

“No, look. I’ll come in, we’ll hang out. We’ll run the train.”

“Curtis, I love you, but if you come through that tunnel I will kick you in the face until you go back. I am not joking, Curtis. I will kick you in the face.”

Curtis straightened, sobering up a bit. He nodded in understanding, and began to back out of the doorway. “I’ll tell them you’ll be out in a bit, then. Some of us are going to be grilling out back, doing some hamburgers for everyone who’s staying. So. I’ll... see you there. Ummm. All right.” He closed the door slowly, sneaking in one peak before it closed all the way.

Caroline sat down on the stool her father used to sit in. She grabbed Cotton Mather up from the floor and began to stroke his fur. What a joke her father would have found these whole proceedings. Harold Auger hated any ceremony devoid of magic or purpose, and this was exactly that sort of ceremony he railed against. If the old man were here right now, Caroline thought to herself, he would destroy this place. He’d kick off the stereo, put away all of the wine and fancy desserts. He’d drag everyone out into the backyard and force everyone to have a beer. He’d even sneak the youngsters a few sips. Then he would tell ghost stories. He would tell stories about Old Manse County. He would scare the kids. He’d make everyone laugh.

She saw the old graveyard her father had made behind the Old Manse Episcopalian Church. She realized that she had never actually seen her father bury any of the Old Manse citizens. She had born witness to nearly every other event the landscape could have provided, had even been there when citizens had died, but she had never seen them buried. She had no idea what an Old Manse funeral had entailed. It was, she realized, the one secret her father had kept that she wished she knew.

She began to reach out her hand to run it over the gravestones of the burial ground when Cotton Mather began to twitch and claw in her lap. She straightened up quickly, picking up Cotton and holding him away from her so that his claws would be unable to snag her again.

“What’s up with you, Cotton?” Caroline asked the cat. Suddenly the cat gave one of those full-body twisting contortions that only cats and some sea creatures seem capable of, and was thrown loose from Caroline’s grip. The cat landed haphazardly on the landscape, knocking over a couple of trees and sending Reverend Porter’s truck tumbling down Church Rd.

Then. Oh, then. Then, with a slow calmness and precision, just like her father used to use, Cotton Mather used his paws to very deliberately correct everything he had upset. Caroline watched the whole thing in a mystified silence. When he was done, Cotton turned to Caroline and stared directly into her eyes. Caroline stared back. Slowly the cat opened its mouth, but no sound came out. There sat Cotton Mather the cat, mouth wide open, staring straight into Caroline’s eyes. Then, slowly, a noise like the release of air from a slashed tire seemed to escape from the cat’s mouth. Caroline suddenly became very uncomfortable. Cotton suddenly looked very embarrassed. “Maybe I should be socializing,” Caroline said to no one. She looked down at the crawlspace leading back to the outside world. She got down on her hands and knees, and slowly began to crawl deep underneath the earth of Old Manse County.


***


He was dead, that much was certain. Harold Auger had died. He knew this because he had been there. He WAS Harold Auger. Perhaps he still was. He wasn’t quite sure how these things worked.

His death, as far as deaths go, had been a good one. He’d fallen asleep in his favorite overstuffed chair while reading a book on Aaron Burr and had simply not woken up. Surely there was a technical name for what happened, some failure of this organ, or fuck up of that organ. In the big picture, it didn’t matter. Harold didn’t care, and neither did anyone else. He’d died comfortable, and everyone agreed that, as he frequently had throughout his life, Harold had made the smart play in his death.

After death, however, had been tricky. Everything had gotten blurry. He’d heard voices that he was pretty sure he recognized, but couldn’t really place. There had been a warmth, but not a particularly comforting one. It was as though he were being tie-dyed in warm water, just out of earshot of loved ones who were wondering where in the hell he was. He was being asked questions in a language he didn’t understand, but could catch the drift. The whole time, all he could remember thinking about was Caroline. And suddenly there she was, all dressed in black and standing over his gravesite.

Harold Auger had been a fair and judicious man. He tried to treat people respectfully, was frequently brought into disputes to be an impartial judge, and was considered by all to be a stand-up man. However, impartiality flew out the window when it came to his little girl. It’s a dirty, filthy lie that parents don’t have favorites. They all do, but certainly to different degrees. There was no question as to who was Harold Auger’s favorite. He loved the boys, but he was smitten with Caroline. She was certainly the most like him of all the Auger children, and had turned out more clever and beautiful than anyone had had any right to expect.

As he found himself there, floating light in the ether, he knew it was because of her. The voices in the soup, the questions, the push and pull of it all; it had been about her. It was the only downside to a death so pleasant - no good-byes. No final words, no summation of life wisdom, no big moment. Just... gone. He had been given a chance, a chance to relay his final message. If only he could come up with one.

The graveside service was over, and Caroline was getting into the black funereal sedan with the rest of the immediate Auger family. The ether-Harold moved (moved? Floated? Ambled? He still wasn’t quite sure how this worked) into the car with them. As the car began to move, Harold tried to think of what his final words should be to his beloved daughter. Would a simple “good-bye” suffice? Or maybe “I love you.” It seemed so cheap, though. Did he really need to say good-bye? Was there any doubt that he had loved her? Maybe it should be more practical. He could remind her to make sure she read a good book every now and then. Pay her taxes on time. Fuck. He was smarter than this. Obviously he was allowed this... whatever it was, this opportunity, to come back and say something meaningful to his daughter. That the love you take is equal to the love you make? Shit. He needed something quick. Who knows how long he had?

He got as close as he could to Caroline. This was it. This was his moment. A lifetime of experience and wisdom, culled into one final sincere message whispered on the breeze into the ear of his daughter at his very funeral. And that message was... DAMMIT. Umm... Shit. It was... Be nice to people. Well, certainly there was more to it than that. But maybe he was onto something.

Caroline had always been one of those individuals who tended to expect too much from people and was, consequently, consistently disappointed in them. Harold had watched over the years as many of his daughter’s friendships and relationships had imploded due to other’s impossibility to live up to her standards. She was lonelier than she should be, and it was by and large her own fault. Harold had always hoped she’d mellow with age, but at twenty-five she showed no signs of easing up.

That was it. That was the message. “Ease up!” He’d gotten it! He concentrated on it. He concentrated hard and long on sending the message to Caroline. “Ease up! Ease up! Ease up! Ease up! Ease up!” He thought, over and over again. Suddenly, Caroline seemed to be thinking of something. She cocked her head ever so slightly and scrunched her eyebrows together. Had she heard him? Had his message gotten through? She adjusted herself in the seat, leaned over to Tim, and said, “Is there going to be pizza at the reception?” Tim glared back at her. “I just don’t want to be forced to eat stupid mourning food. Salmon platters and pate and whatnot. What, like pizza isn’t serious enough? Pizza will offend the dead? I just want a fucking slice of pizza, that’s all.” Silence in the car again. Shit.

No. Wait. This was good. That was a TERRIBLE final message, what was he thinking? Ease up? What, on the brakes? Was this Driver’s Ed? He could do better. He could definitely do better. Couldn’t he?

The reception was awful. Exactly the kind of pomp and circumstance he had hated. Everyone was miserable and mopey. Caroline had been correct in both assuming that there wouldn’t be pizza and in thinking that everyone would have been better off if there had been. He had been relieved when Caroline ditched the party for the study. He eagerly followed.

In the study Caroline sat staring at the train. Ether-Harold stared with her. He thought back on all the time he’d spent with the children in this room. A lot of important things had happened here. Not the big important things, but the small ones, the ones that were the structure of what the children would become. The conversations, the realizations, the confessions, the decisions, so many of them had taken place right here. As Harold’s thoughts rambled, Curtis poked his head into the room. Harold had always liked Curtis. He was a dupe, but a good-hearted dupe. He was also the only other person whose love of Caroline seemed close to matching Harold’s. Poor Curtis.

Then suddenly it struck him. He knew what his final message would be. He would tell Caroline that what everyone needed was in this room. What everyone needed was a space where they could feel free to ask those questions, and have those conversations, and possibly come across as stupid, or afraid, or lonely, but that in this space, that was ok. That people by and large were good, but that they were all looking for a place to hide, and that if you ever truly wanted to love people, if you ever truly wanted to have those deep, meaningful relationships, that was all you had to do - give people a place to hide. Give someone a place to hide, and they will be yours for life.

It wasn’t the greatest final message, but it was his. It was what he wanted to say, what he felt Caroline needed to hear. Only now he had to figure out how to say it. The concentration thing hadn’t worked. He began searching around the room, trying to find some sort of vessel, something that could carry his message. Then he felt something. Something that reminded him of when heroes in old gothic romances felt a breeze inside an old castle that revealed a hidden doorway. There was a doorway.

Cotton Mather. The feeling was coming from Cotton Mather. “Ah well,” Harold thought. “Here goes nothing.”

He moved towards the cat, and suddenly it was as though he was being pulled towards it. He was disoriented. There was thrashing and tearing, a brief and violent battle for control. Then suddenly, there he was. Inside the cat. Standing on all fours in the midst of Old Manse County. Somewhere within the whole scuffle the place had gotten upset, and cat-Harold quickly righted everything with the paws he very quickly adapted to using. Then he turned to face Caroline. She was staring at him with a look of confusion and possibly terror. He froze. Suddenly the weirdness of the situation caught up with him all at once. What in the hell was happening? He tried to shake it off and speak, but when he did only a hoarse wheeze escaped his newly inherited mouth. God, this was embarrassing. Caroline, now obviously terrified, slowly sank underneath the terrain and left the room.

Cat-Harold grew desperate. He trotted out of the study and began searching the house for Caroline. He was beginning to feel his control loosen, and he felt the fear of time slipping away. He had been given a second chance, and he couldn’t ruin it. He finally found Caroline on the back porch, sitting in a chair watching the boys attempting to start the gas grill. It was now or never. He felt it. Cat-Harold jumped into Caroline’s lap, stretched himself so that his hind legs rested on her legs and his front paws were on her collar bone. Caroline was looking at him with that same mixture of curiosity and terror. “Caroline,” he said, his own voice coming out of the cat. It had worked! This was it! His final moment! “Caroline, there’s something very important that I...”

***

What happened next, the family would later chalk up to the extreme sorrow of the situation upsetting people’s mental states. Caroline, swearing she heard Cotton Mather speak with the voice of her father, proceeded to push the cat off of her as hard as she could with both hands. The cat went flying through the air, landing flat on the grill just as Sam’s match caught the gas. Sam, understandably shaken by the sudden appearance of a flying cat, screamed and stumbled backwards, falling over Curtis, who was on his knees adjusting the gas level. Curtis, knocked by Sam, fell forward onto the gas nozzle, twisting it under his weight and sending a small fireball into the night sky that contained within it the now cindered form of Cotton Mather. Although neither would ever admit it, both Curtis and Sam could have sworn they heard the voice of old man Auger yelling “FUCKING HELL” as the fireball dissipated, leaving the scorched body of Cotton Mather to land smoking on the lawn, stumble for a moment, and then expire.

***

He was dead, that was certain. Cotton Mather the cat had been consumed in a fireball. But here he was, floating around in a multi-colored soup. There were voices he could not understand, asking him questions of which he could only perceive the tone. Then he was there, in the back yard. Watching as the family, now absent a father, put the British Knights shoebox that contained his mortal coil into the ground. He had been brought back for some purpose. He knew it. But what?

As he made his way around the yard, he saw it. A raccoon. Now that he was ether-Cotton Mather, he could sneak up right beside the feral beast. Relishing in his newfound stealth Cotton crept close to the raccoon. As he did so he felt a slight wind, like a draft coming from the opening of a secret passage. Then there was a pull, as he was tugged forcibly into the form of the raccoon. There was a brief, violent fight, and then it was over. Cotton Mather now inhabited the raccoon. The ex cat made a check of his newly inherited body. Suddenly, everything seemed brighter again. He had returned with a purpose. He had been given a second chance. He had been given a gift.

HE HAD BALLS AGAIN.