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The Box Hunters
(an excerpt))
by Albert J. Manachino
Copyright ©2002 by Albert J. Manachino

2: Arrival at Margrave

We encountered no traffic. Not even a horse-drawn wagon. I didn't see anything that looked like a farm. There were no hitchhikers or people walking along the road. The road itself looked as if it had been started in 1929 and abandoned before completion, say around 1931.

Nor did we see so much as a chicken crossing it so that I could have asked the traditional question. And the answer would have been silly, as one side looked exactly like the other, so that there was no reason to cross the road in the first place.

None of us saw a single street sign. The trees were scrawny, parched, and almost leafless, as if they hadn't enough nourishment. I'd seen people that looked like that in the poorest and most isolated rural communities of the South. But there, the vegetation at least looked fresh and vibrant. I could see why Haas spoke in a whisper. The community was dying, and he spoke softly out of respect for the pending dead.

The dust cloud we threw up was horrendous; a cyclone couldn't have churned up more.

June ran out of directions. I drew up to a stop. She looked at me and waved the Haas map like a surrender flag.

"That's it!" she declared.

"That's it?"

"That's it!"

I looked at the map. Sure enough, it and the road ran out at the same place.

I said, "Jeannie, when we get back to the Bickerage, remind me to take out a contract on that Haas guy."

Maria objected almost immediately, as she does to anything I suggest or think of.

"You can't do that! He's probably got a large family to provide for."

"People like him don't have families," I said, absolutely sure of myself. "They have no mothers or fathers. They just come into the world like mold."

All the time while underway, the road had dwindled little by little until it was barely wide enough for two bicycles to pass going in opposite directions. But I don't think that theory was ever put to the test because there weren't two bicycles in the whole goddam'd county. We were all alone in the world. Leland and I got out, followed by Annette, who looked as if she wanted to go to the ladies' room. Leland was still a practicing boy scout. He glanced around, examined the brush on both sides of the road, and backtracked several dozen feet in the direction we'd come from. I saw his hands go up in bewilderment.

Ten feet in front of us the road ended in a mass of very tall weeds. So tall that I couldn't see over their tops. Annette wiggled her way into them and was lost to sight. But not to hearing.

Sound traveled a long way in the stillness of that air. We heard her snuffling and trampling underbrush a long time after she couldn't be seen. Leland returned and reported emphatically, "Nobody but us has used this road in at least a year."

The only marks I saw were those made by the Turkey. Lee's footprints were easy to spot - they were as large as flagstones. Mine were all by the car as I hadn't ventured in any direction. June, Jeannie, and Maria never got out of the car. Annette's tracks disappeared into the tall underbrush ten feet away.

Leland was right. If anyone had passed this way in the last twelve months, they must have flown. The dryness of the vegetation told us it hadn't rained in ages.

The footprints, if ever there had been any, could not have been washed away. I suppose they could have been windblown into obliteration, but even the wind, such as there was, didn't seem to touch this earth.

It struck me forcibly. Aside from Haas and that farmer he'd sold nails to when we entered the store, none of us had seen a single living human being in Sprite-Williams. No wonder tramps didn't break into Margrave. There weren't any. We were the only people in this vast, silent, forsaken region. There was no Margrave. The whole thing was a setup to mulch seventy-five bucks from me and to unload a ton of turn-of-the-century hardware. I determined on a council of war.

"Look!" I said to the girls. "I know you had your hearts set on doing something different this summer. You found what you thought was a promising lead and I did my best to get you here." I pointed to the underbrush ahead of us. "The road ends there. What should I do? I'm not even sure there's enough room to turn around in so that we can go back the way we came."

They looked at each other and Jeannie said, "I'm not going back without Annette."

Leland scratched his head. "Hey! That's right! We haven't seen or heard the mutt in twenty minutes."

Maria eyed the underbrush. "I saw her go in there."

Somewhere out of sight in the tall, arid weeds, Annette vented her vaunted "Aarroooo!"

There was a ventriloquist quality to the sound that baffled direction. I'd never noticed it till now.

Undoubtedly Sprite-Williams was responsible. To my knowledge, Annette couldn't bark, howl, or whine, but she was capable of a long, drawn-out wail that made your hair stand on end. Especially when heard on a lonely moor at night. That and a snuffle were the only sounds she could make. She couldn't even growl. The only way you could tell she meant business was when she bared her teeth and the gums around them drew back like a receding tide.

Her coat stood on end. The "Aarroooo" had a neutral quality. It was impossible to judge from it whether she was delighted, baffled, scared, or just plain hungry. I threw my head back and yelled. She responded at once.

Leland reached the underbrush before I did and plunged into it almost to his shoulders. That is, it should have been up to his shoulders, but it moved out of the way as if anxious to avoid being trampled. A cube of ice ran down my spine.

"Leland!" I snapped. "Back out at once."

He did so with a puzzled expression in his voice. "What's the matter?"

I ignored the question and ordered him to go into the weeds a couple of feet. My face felt dry and taut, as if I'd powdered it with alum.

"Well, OK ... but if you don't tell me what's wrong . . ."

This time the vegetation got out of his way before he stepped into it. Annette came bounding out through another path that opened up for her. She paused to relieve herself and I'll swear that the growth she did it on screamed obscenities at her. The girls took it all in as if transfixed.

"I think you're right," June said. "I have a feeling we aren't going to be allowed to go back even if we wanted to."

Maria got behind the wheel and aimed the Turkey at the underbrush. It moved aside.

"I don't know what is going to happen," she said, "but something wants us to go on."

She drove the car into the thicket and stopped, half in the undergrowth and half on the road. She tried to back out. The weeds wrapped themselves around the front end and held the Millennium Turkey fast.

"We continue," she said.

Leland opened a door and got in. I stopped to ask the dog, "Did you find Margrave, baby?"

She wagged her tail. That meant, "What's Margrave?"

As I said, she and Leland are about equally matched intellectually. I got into the rear with June and Eugenia. Annette scrambled into the front. Maria let the clutch in and we blasted off at five miles per hour. She was giving the weeds time to get out of the way, which was thoughtful as well as humane. I wouldn't have cared to have them turn on me.

Margrave, when we found it, lay right across the path. We'd driven up on what must have been the carriageway. It's hard, even now, to give an accurate impression of how Margrave affected us ... affected me. The mere thought of 150 rooms made me visualize an old English country estate or a pre-Revolutionary French chateau. It was all that with respect to size. But it was Transylvanian in intent, not English or French. I don't think a morgue in its functioning prime could be as bleak as Margrave was on that fading July afternoon. It reared out of the forest like an obscene finger directing its blasphemy at heaven.

The house ... chateau ... mansion ... I don't know what to call it yet, was of wood and had scores of small windows that were filled with tiny triangular panels of colored glass in a style once popular during the early nineteenth century. Sunlight striking the glass blended in a variegated reflection reminiscent of a suppurated wound.

Nor was the reflection all that hurt the eye. The architecture positively seared it. The building soared upward five stories and from there square wooden towers, one at each corner, took over and continued the dizzying ascent. The panorama brought back to mind a sketch I'd seen of a dinosaur skeleton lying on its back with its feet sticking straight into the air.

Huge, ugly black birds clustered around the eaves and made indecent proposals as we got out of the car. Ravens? Crows? Who knows? They seemed symbolic of all that was wrong with Sprite-Williams. How had they gotten so large when there was so little to eat, unless they fattened on misery and despair?

Incredible as it may sound, what we saw was but half of what Margrave once had been.

The car was drawn up under half of an enormous portico. The other part of the portico vanished with the missing section of the house. It was no mere slicing off - it was a surgical amputation.

No banners announced it. No placards proclaimed it. No mailbox with its neatly stenciled address informed us that this was Margrave, but we no more doubted it than we doubted being there. Margrave, large enough to be a fiefdom unto itself.

No welcoming committee greeted us. No caretaker stood there to respectfully doff his hat as we approached the house. No butler in livery bowed us through the doors.

No footman appeared to help us carry our baggage. We were met by a silence as utter as that which must have followed the clap of doom. Resentfully, Maria leaned on the horn. The blare sent scores of the black birds tumbling from their perches. They uttered frightened noises and flapped their wings furiously in an attempt to regain their composure.

June gave voice to what we all were thinking. "I wish I'd never seen that lousy newspaper."

Haas was right, we didn't need keys. The front doors gaped wide open like an insomniac in mid-yawn. The wooden steps were weather-beaten but still solid enough to bear our weight without groaning. Beyond the doors was a cavernous ballroom. Or to be precise, half a ballroom.

On the right, a still graceful staircase followed the wall to the second floor, some twenty feet above us. From there, another staircase repeated the procedure up to the third floor, and so on forever. The descending side should have been on the left but it no longer existed. I thought of the mysterious fire that Haas cackled over. Well, it had happened long ago. . . very long ago.

The ruins had been scraped up and carted away. Perhaps even before our lifetimes.

That thought triggered another. Everything seemed so incredibly old. The walls were coated with plaster that still held firmly to its lath ... something not seen in newer houses. Just exactly when was Margrave built? And for what purpose? When did the fire occur and how did it start? That Margrave suffered a great fire none of us doubted, even though no visible damage survived. Yes, workmen removed the debris and built an outside wall in what formerly was the middle of the mansion. All that remained were 150 rooms. Should we have wanted more, how would Haas have come up with them? I could see me going up to him now.

"Haas, I need another fifty rooms."

And his response, "Sure! Right away! Sixty bucks, please."

But where would the additional rooms have come from? Such belongings as we'd carried in with us were dropped unceremoniously onto the ballroom floor. And then, for some reason, we all clustered at the bottom of the staircase and stared indecisively at the first landing. Annette wandered up three or four steps and stopped. She directed an undecided moan at the landing and then, tucking her tail between her legs, retreated behind Leland's back.

We'd arrived in the late afternoon and now the first gray shades of evening were beginning to cast their pall in the corners and obscure crannies of the ballroom. Margrave dark was more intimidating than Margrave light so June and Maria lighted a few of the kerosene lamps. I picked one up and, putting on a show of bravura, climbed the steps to the first landing.

The banister was old, but the woodworms seemed to have ignored it, so that it was everything a banister ought to be - firm and steady. The newel post at the top was capped with a wooden nude that carried a bow and a quiver of arrows slung over her shoulder. There was a piece of loose carpeting on the floor and I draped it over the statuette. Eugenia was too young to be seeing that kind of stuff and I was too old, and I wasn't entirely sure about Leland. The landing continued along a wall spanning the entire width of the ballroom and stopped on the extreme left at the entrance to a corridor that ran breathlessly into the interior as if bound on an errand of mercy. I passed no fewer than seven closed doors but made no effort to see what was behind them. Tomorrow perhaps. To show off a little, I decided to explore a little way inside the passage. The rest of the family no doubt were watching the lantern light with bated breath. I doubted that they could see me in the gathering gloom because the damn'd lamp didn't throw off much more illumination than a firefly. Inside the corridor, closed doors faced me from both sides.

They were unlocked and the first one I opened was on my left. I found myself looking at a wall of mortared brick that filled the entire doorway. The wall vanished from sight at the lintel and no doubt it continued up the entire five stories that Margrave comprised. This, then, was where the fire had run its course.

There's something unsettling about confronting a brick wall where no brick wall ought to be. Something like seeing a pair of shining eyes under your bed. I closed it as quietly as I could and crossed the corridor. The doors on the right concealed apartments smelling of dry rot. They were far too dark to be explored by lantern light. I thought that it might be little better during the day. Those puny windows with their tiny panes of colored glass were never intended to admit sunlight and fresh air. My impression was that they were to confine something that was already in, not to let something in that was not.

Maria's voice penetrated my bemusement. Unnoticed, she had followed me up the stairs. I almost jumped out of my skin when she spoke.

"Isn't it exciting, Dad? Let's look around some more."

I almost dropped the lantern. The remark, commonplace though it was, left me shaking in a cold sweat. I've always said that it is the ordinary that makes you scream. That is, the ordinary in extraordinary places, and when it isn't expected. I handed her the lantern.

"Not right now, hon. You go ahead and enjoy yourself. I got to see about bringing the rest of our stuff inside." As an afterthought I added, "Don't trip over the bones of any tramps."

She rewarded me with a blank expression but I noticed she didn't lose any time following me back down the stairs.

Moving in and settling down in the approaching twilight was a masterpiece of chaos. Whenever I think of it, I prefer to do so in the privacy and seclusion of a locked room where no one can see me clench my fists and pound the walls.

Leland and I carried in what had to be carried in. Which seemed to be mostly equipment bought from Haas. The thing is, all of us thought that anyplace we rented, anywhere in the world, would be furnished. Haas had told us that Margrave wasn't furnished. But we only half believed him. He was right. Annette rode shotgun on us. In reality, she was afraid to remain in the house without the reassuring presence of menfolk, so she pretended to be guarding us while we brought the stuff in. Once outside, she was also afraid to be there and she'd walk us back in. What a dog!

June looked at me and said, "So, where's the bedrooms?"

I replied, "You're standing in them." She didn't believe me.

But for that one trip upstairs, no one did any exploration worthy of the name. However, everyone poked halfheartedly around in the ballroom. That was how we found there was a corridor on the ground floor that ran directly under the one on the first landing. Whatever! It was too dark to look around now. If worse came to worse, and I had no doubt but that it would, we could always pitch camp in the middle of the ballroom. The girls could change in the corners where us boys couldn't see whatever it was they didn't want us to see.

Maria reported on our excursion into the upstairs corridor. "There was a lot of rooms on the right side of the hall. Some had furniture in them."

June talked her out of it almost immediately. "If it's as old as I think, the beds will be rat-infested."

"I'm afraid of rats," Jeannie said.

"I ain't up to lugging this stuff around in the dark," I reminded them. "For this one night, we can set up the cots here."

Maria and June seconded the idea. Leland objected. He wanted to carry the camping equipment upstairs to one of the towers.

"I like fresh air," he explained.

"So do sparrows," I said wearily.

The lanterns didn't throw off much illumination and none of us had been farsighted enough to bring flashlights with us. Tomorrow I'd drive into Sprite-Williams to see if Haas had anything brighter than what he'd sold us. That is, if the weeds would let me through. One thing was certain, I wasn't about to set up camp on any other than the first floor. If there was another fire, I wanted a place where I could safely jump out of a window or run out of a door.

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To be continued...
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