Category Archives: microfiction

The Echo Pipe

The echo pipe stuck straight out of solid bedrock. 3 ¾ inches of rusted iron, it was Hawley’s biggest mystery. Mrs. Strickland’s spontaneous combustion and the meteor shower that made the town smell like spent matches lagged behind in the dust. Those were one-time things. The pipe was ongoing.

The bit of road that curved before it went into a tunnel leading out of town, that was where you found the echo pipe. On the hottest day, you could still feel a cool underground breeze wafting out of the mouth of the pipe. That’s how folk knew it was real, not just a bit of leftover sewer pipe stuck in the mountain by some joker. Maybe once the pipe had been capped, or maybe it continued into the ground and that section had broken off, but now the end was a jagged mess. The legend went, if you put your ear (carefully, those shards were sharp) to the hole, you could hear an echo back before you even said anything.

Hawley kids have been using the pipe as entertainment for decades. It’s a telephone, planchette, almanac, and confessional all in one. Early days, the pipe would only give an echo out after you said something into it. Nowadays, all one has to do is wait and something will come out. Girls will have listening parties, collapsing into giggles the second they hear a man’s voice. Boys will ascribe terrible crimes to the sounds they hear, labeling every conversation as some sort of code. Once in awhile some loner will pretend the echoes coming from that rusted hole are part of a conversation being held with them and only them. They usually give it up after the strain of belief becomes too much, usually two-three days camping out by the pipe. It was one of these loners that was the unwitting instigator of the end, boy by the name of Ethan Madden.

As he described it to the rest of the town, Ethan’s experience went like this: he set up a camping chair by the pipe, intending hours of listening. He caught faint snatches of conversation. Nothing important, some couple arguing about who was to take a mysterious “her” up to the city. There was a flat silence for all of six seconds, and then the scream.

The scream was so loud that Notch Evans, the man with the house closest to the road, could hear it. Ethan swears he’s still deaf in the ear that was facing the pipe. The scream went on for hours. 3 hours 25 minutes to be exact. In the wake of such a noise, the silence seemed to ring. The whole town camped around that thing, even 93-year-old Mrs. Van der Waals struggled up the hill. All eyes trained on that pipe, waiting for the next sound.

What came next was a cacophony, decipherable to no one. Occasionally there were snatches of quiet, leaving orphan phrases to be interpreted. A man called Mark shouted for Melissa to bring the kids. Ten-year-old Mark Drisson blushed and looked at the ground, not at Melissa Eckhart. Men called to each other to patch the hole where Notch’s place stood with parts of the roof. Notch drained of all color. On and on it went like that. Some terrible catastrophe was befalling the town, one they could only partially discern. Was it a flood? Earthquake? On they listened, eager for any information that might help avoid the end.

At 2:14 pm on June 6th, amidst the roar of a crowd in turmoil, the pipe went silent. And silent it has remained ever since.

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Dave’s Blue Hole

Dave’s Blue Hole is an unusually deep freshwater spring located outside of Gunsmith, Colorado. The actual measure of the hole is unknown; the last attempt bottomed out at 115 meters before the surveyor ran out of line. The water becomes anoxic at about 43 meters. After the incident of 1988, the spring has been capped indefinitely by a metal gate. Dave’s Bait & Wait remains standing beside the entrance to the pool, abandoned after tourism dropped off completely.

The first recorded description of the spring comes from a Spanish traveler’s diary dated 1796. The writer, a Franciscan friar on his way to San Carlos, detailed a stop at a place sheltered by high bluffs. Within the cliffs, they found an unusually round spring that produced clear, crisp water. Another member of the traveler’s group fell into the spring and sank out of sight almost immediately. The group cast lines into the hole to no avail. What’s more, they found through experimentation that the water had almost no buoyancy. Light things like sticks and even folded paper would not stay on the surface for more than a moment.

The traveler also noted the existence of a petroglyph on the bluff immediately above the spring, depicting a whale-like creature. The petroglyph has been all but worn away in the intervening centuries. The rock where it sat now contains only a few faint lines.

The parcel of land where the hole lies was purchased by one David Killigan in 1860 for the princely sum of $.35 per acre. He initially intended to mine for silver but found the novelty of the hole too striking to pass up. He built a store in hopes of attracting travelers en route to the rockies, touting the supposed restorative powers of the spring. The place became a local fixture, Killigan a tolerated eccentric that added color to the countryside. When he disappeared in 1876, it raised a mild furor. Killigan’s lantern was found placed beside his shoes at the rim of the spring. A line was secured to the nearby horse-hitching post and led down into the water, upon retrieving the line they found it had been tied into a series of knots to serve as a ladder. Neighbors in town had heard him complaining of mild temblors coming from inside the spring just a few days prior. He had possibly entered the waters in hopes of discovering the source of the noise and fallen prey to a thermocline.

The shop passed from hand to hand over the years. It was a solid tourist draw, so the operation was run by an official town trust. The spring drew no more unusual interest until the onset of recreational diving as a pastime.

The spring had long been a draw for thrill-seeking divers when Mark Boyle attempted his descent on June 5th, 1988. The anoxic nature of the spring meant that many animal skeletons littered the walls of the hole. Divers who ventured past the indicated safety zone spoke of human skeletons glimpsed at greater depths, in numbers that might suggest human sacrifice. The spring had been equipped with a submerged gate that warned divers that venturing past that point was unadvisable. Mark’s plan that day was to do exactly that.

Mark had brought along two friends and a safety line as guards against a possible accident. Neither friend was diving-certified, nor did they have diving equipment.

At 3:07pm, Mark went over the side of the spring.

At 3:46 the safety line began trembling. Mark’s friends became alarmed.

At approximately 4pm, the safety line went taut. Mark attempted a rapid ascent, too rapid. He showed signs of decompression sickness when he surfaced, slurring his words and lacking coordination. As one friend raced to call an ambulance, the other attempted to administer first aid. Mark rambled about something that lived in the waters of the spring, that the spring was really just a small outlet of a much-larger subterranean body of water. He was incoherent when the ambulance arrived. He fell unconscious on the way to Gunsmith’s only hospital and died a few hours later.

After an inquiry, a second gate was set on the mouth of the spring and welded in place. Through possible corruption due to metals fallen into the spring, the water has taken on a corrosive effect. Seismic activity in the region has increased steadily since 1988.

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Mulberry Leaves

There is a nameless shrine on a mountaintop somewhere in the Nanpo islands of japan. Maps do not list it, and the torii crowning the entrance has been buried. A single red lacquer horn is all that exists to show the way to this shrine, which lies up a difficult incline of 108 steps.

The body of the shrine itself was constructed of driftwood and fitted together without nails. The only adornment of the shrine is a hemp rope bearing two ragged rice paper shide.

In this shrine is a mulberry tree. No matter how many years pass, this tree remains exactly eight inches in diameter. Instead of fruit, the tree bears silk strands.

There is a village at the foot of this mountain. They have no record of any shrine, only that the village once produced fabrics of the finest caliber during the Tokugawa shogunate. Villagers will blithely say the silk was imported, that no mulberry has ever grown on island soil. Invite them to the mountain, they will decline. There is nothing up there, why bother?

The mulberry silk strands are unusually tough and course, many magnitudes thicker than that produced by Bombyx mori. Coring the trunk is inexact, for the wood had a plasticity not common in the mulberry family. The only factor restraining regular harvest is that the silk, once plucked, takes many weeks to grow back.

In the village of this island, there were five founding families. Five homes producing silk. This is evident in the tax records of the Edo merchant who imported the fabric. Then, suddenly, there were four families. Why? Where did they go? Modern villagers will shrug their shoulders. Lots of things happen in a few years. Battles are found or lost. Ships crash. Why bother digging up the past?

Examination of the tree roots will turn up another anomaly. At the end of each root is a peculiar oblong scale. Tests of these scales show that they are not wood but a protein structure unique to the tree. Attempted removal only results in an excess of sap flowing from the point of injury.

Tax records from mainland Honshu tell of a time of unrest on the island. A dip in both quality and quantity. A peculiar red, unique to the island, vanished from the shipment forever. A note of usury from the silk supplier, demanding to know the whereabouts of a third of the raw materials. And then…nothing. The next year shows a slight uptick in production, minus the red fabric. The village no longer produces silk, getting by on subsistence farming and fishing in the modern day.

There is a matsuri unique to the island, taking place at the end of spring. Thirteen square holes are dug, and straw dummies that have been beaten with farm implements are places in the holes and set alight “to salt the ground.” Minor excavation of the festival grounds have turned up roof tiles, indicating there was once a house on the land.

Every spring, as matsuri lanterns light up the village at night, the tree weeps sap.

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A Series of Museum Samples, Labeled Accordingly

Box #: 2376

Contains: Homo interstella

Description:  Species adapted to life in the vacuum of space.

Distinguishing features: Relatively fragile skeleton. Expanded ribcage for increased lung capacity. Skull capacity of 1600cc. Abdominal implants to aid in the voiding of waste.

Added notes: Only intact specimen, the rest lost after orbit decay.

 

Box #: 8446

Contains: Homo proelius

Description: Species specifically engineered to serve as soldiers of war. Possessing an unusually dense skeleton, fast-twitch muscles, and a metabolism 4.8X higher that of Homo erectus.

Distinguishing features: Abnormally enlarged canines. Rapid maturation rate. Sagittal crest, indicating jaw strength equal to a common Pan troglodytes. Vestigial genitalia.

Added notes: Average lifespan of 6-8 years.

 

Box #: 5610000

Contains: Homo radiensis

Description: The skeleton of a species that chose to inhabit the surface contaminated with nuclear fallout.

Distinguishing features: Degraded skeletal structure due to the metabolism of radioactive agents. Jawbone has dissolved from  body processing Strontium-90 as calcium. Skin covered with carcinomas and sunless “Chernobyl” tan.

Added notes: Specimen emits 2.6 Sv of radiation at all times, box must be lead-lined.

 

Box#: 100078684

Contains: Homo cardifferi

Description: Specimen taken from a failed colony at Cardiff.

Distinguishing features: Due to a genetic bottleneck, specimen is possessed of several recessive genetic traits as well as an enlarged heart and other physical ailments. Skeletal structure indicates the specimen was unable to walk or sit upright due to crippling arthritis.

Added notes: Specimen was four years of age.

 

Box #: 42X1034

Contains: Homo bovinus

Description: Species specifically designed to serve as supplemental food source.

Distinguishing features: Shortened limb growth. Abundance of fatty glands and outsize sexual organs. Implanted rumen to aid in the digestion of a vegetation-heavy diet. C-curve of the spine, indicating the specimen was quadrupedal.

Added notes: Brain shows signs of heavy protein starvation, limiting neural activity.

 

Box #: 86X1090

Contains: Homo kelvinus

Description: an attempt by scientist Homer Kelvin to repopulate the earth through genetic manipulation.

Distinguishing features: none.

Added notes: All specimens genetically identical to Dr. Kelvin.

 

Box #: [number is scratched out]

Contains: Homo aeturnus

Description: The last, the ultimate human being. Man, so warped by his own hand, sought to engineer the architect of the end. A specimen that would live a span of indeterminate longevity, created for the sole task of categorizing his fallen brethren.

Distinguishing features: Lack of genital structure. Cells infinitely capable of producing telomerase, escaping the Hayflick limit. A skull capacity of 2800cc.

Added notes: The box is empty.

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Skipping Stones

Elvira, Ohio has the dubious honor of harboring the only known instance of a completely child-based cult. When it began or who started it is up to the unknown. But from May-August of 1965, the entirety of Mrs. Hardin’s fourth-grade class became participants in a bizarre series of rituals that shattered the peace of the small town forever.

The first instance of the cult manifesting itself was what appeared to be a simple playground game not unlike hopscotch. 20 children marked out a series of squares in chalk on the blacktop and numbered them. Stones were tossed into the field, and for each number a cryptic phrase was called out. “Violet—down to the west! Ian—curl through and out!” Elora Hardin noted that the game would disperse immediately as she approached. The children would lie when asked the nature of the game, denying they had been playing anything.

More and more of the children’s time became devoted to the series of games. They would walk in form from the school to their homes, refusing to acknowledge any children from the other grades. They were closed off and emotionless, speaking only when spoken to. One parent jokingly referred to them as the Kinderarmy. The humor covered up a deep-running concern within the town. The children began eating only in shifts, some fasting for a day before allowing themselves to feed. A child on a fasting shift could not be forced to eat, not through threat or physical punishment.

It was during the 4th of July picnic that the falling ritual was first discovered. Pastor Eames observed the children clustered by a nearby bridge spanning a dry creek. As he watched, the children picked a participant through unknown means. Henrietta Marley stepped forward, crossed her hands over her chest, and hurled herself backwards off the bridge. Eames made it to the bridge in three large steps. Anthony Brown had stepped up to be next. Eames reached out to grab the boy. Heady Carcer dove forward. Eames reached out to catch her. Anthony, no longer restrained, fell backwards off the bridge.

No one knew what to do. Child psychology was in its infancy. While the children who had dropped from the bridge were not seriously injured, the rest showed a startling lack of empathy for their fellow nine-year-olds.

The town instituted a curfew. The children were put on lockdown at their own houses and not allowed to see each other. Somehow cult-specific terms still managed to travel among the imprisoned children. Joe Ramsey, a traveling salesman, witnessed a gathering of children on the village green as he drove home in the early hours of the morning. Parents checked the next day, but could find no evidence the children had left their rooms.

School had adjourned for the summer, and so parents were hit with a dilemma. Did they dare keep their children locked in their houses all summer long? Or could they risk unleashing them for further strangeness?

A compromise was reached. The children would be let out for specific hours of the day, to interact in supervised groups. The children’s first act on being reunited was to separate into groups of three or four and stand silently, staring at the ground between them. The children did not speak at these meetings. They communicated by touch and followed an unknown set of instructions. Their games were highly structured and complex. As their parents watched, the children walked in kaleidoscopic patterns

The children stopped communicating with their parents. The few with siblings would act as if the other child did not even exist. No technique the parents tried worked on their children. Punishment, positive reinforcement, all fruitless.

On August 18th, the children clustered in the corner of the field instead of dividing into groups. There was a moment’s whispered conversation. Violet Parker broke away from the group and approached the adults.

“It’s been decided,” she said, her first words in over a month, “it has to be me.”

Violet’s eyes rolled back in her head and she began choking. Violet’s mother and two other parents rushed her to the nearest hospital, a whole county away. Doctors could not find the cause of her sudden fit. Despite their ministrations, Violet Parker died at precisely 3:15 in the afternoon. Left behind in the distraction, the remaining fourth graders stepped into the long grass surrounding the field and were never seen again.

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The Stone Ship

Little is known definitively about the stone ship.

The wreckage lies under 345 feet of water in the Black Sea. The anoxic waters of the sea preserve any organic material from the ravages of bacteria, so the ship and its cargo show remarkable lack of degradation. Despite its nickname, the ship may never have been seaworthy. It measures 80 cubits in length and 50 in width. The ship is constructed in the style of ancient Greek triremes, fully rigged to sail and bearing banks of oars, yet the hull is constructed of a stone material.

The ship was found during a sonar scan of the sea bed, for it lies beyond the limits of casual divers. Initially estimated to have an age from AD5-7, the ship was presumed to be the wreckage of a mercantile vessel due to its cargo.

In 1979, a diving expedition manned by a mixed crew of Turkish and Greek divers set out to explore the wreck. It was this expedition that discovered the nature of the ship, and brought up cargo for examination. What was presumed to be market goods turned out to be offerings to an unknown god. The divers lowered the estimated age from AD to BCE 5 or earlier upon examination of the ship’s odd construction. The offerings equally puzzled the crew.

The ship was laden with fat-necked amphora, stained a vivid maroon not present in any extant samples of Roman or Greek pottery. The urns were mostly intact and still sealed, one diver claimed they could still hear liquid inside. The divers also retrieved a sack of what was found to be birdseed laden with iron pellets.

The diving crew made plans to return to the site later. However, when it came time to weigh anchor, one of their number was missing. Basri Ataman had been diving with a partner, yet had failed to surface with the crew. His partner could give no explanation for the oversight.

The rescue crew found Ataman sitting cross-legged among the amphorae on the ship. He had wedged his feet in such a way that he would not rise, even after death. His eyes had turned red from subconjunctival hemorrhage.

A crew of three were able to unstick his body from the wreck, one used his oxygen inhaler to inflate Ataman’s suit to send him quickly to the surface.

At this point, the divers had no further interest in the site. One, however, found something next to the broken amphora Ataman had been sitting on. He brought the object to the surface with them for further study. In the dying light of the day, the crew examined the small statuette.

The ‘little goddess’ (as they dubbed her) was pure gold with lapis and garnet inlaid in the form of a skirt and blouse. Her hair was in the familiar style of Greek frescoes, colored with pine pitch. Where her eyes should have been, however, were two curling projections not unlike ram’s horns.

The divers had interred Ataman’s body in the hold and had plans to return to the wreck after depositing it on shore. They never got a chance.

A gas leak originating from the cargo hold ignited at approximately three in the morning. Most of the crew were killed. The captain and one diver, Phillip Markos, escaped with third degree burns. The captain managed to pilot the crippled ship to shore before expiring from his wounds. Markos was transported to a hospital in time to receive lifesaving skin grafts over three-fourths of his body. He lived two more years before a hotel maid found him dead in the bath. He had a purple scarf tied tightly around his neck, and his eyes bore subconjunctival hemorrhage. Though the coroner found the scarf had not been tight enough to cause asphyxiation, his death was ruled a suicide.

Of the statue, only Markos’s word and a single kodachrome photo remained. Markos denied knowledge of the statue’s whereabouts, only that he was awoken several times before the disaster by a peculiar droning noise originating from the cargo hull.

The amphorae were transferred to the Antalya Museum and sealed against further study. They and the photograph of the statue are now presumed lost during Turkey’s coup d’etat of 1980.

Later expeditions to the stone ship have been unsuccessful. Divers tell of a murkiness that surrounds the site, one that handheld lights cannot hope to alleviate.

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Tattoo Sam

He called himself Sam, “like Uncle Sam.” No one knew what his real name was. He claimed he was the tattooed man for a circus, wandered far and long without a shirt to show his bare, white torso. He’d flex the fat under his flesh and call for us to touch the pictures that weren’t there.

This was long before milk carton pictures and PSAs, so the little our parents could do was warn against approaching him. Like that worked. He approached us. He’d walk up and make muscles, tell us the same thing every time. He was a tattooed man at the Scarborough Traveling Circus for twenty-odd years before they paid him to leave. He had a way of looking at you, straight on, no blinking. He didn’t move his eyes. If you were beside him, he’d turn his whole head to look.

When we’d back away, he’d jiggle his chest at you and shout: “whatsamatta? Ain’t I tattooed enough for you?”

My dad tried time and again to find out where he lived. To find some kind of higher authority to make him stop. Tattoo Sam answered to no higher authority than himself. He’d hijack  any conversation and wax poetic about his body. We started running when we saw him coming.

The split-level at the end of the block had been empty since Mr. Perretti had gone and had a heart attack. Then one day we saw a family drive up with their boxes and their furniture and their daughter in a long white sundress. We knew what trouble looked like, and it was that shy smile on her face. The family hadn’t moved in but one day before Sam scented her.

I bet her folks taught her to be kind. To laugh and smile because people were generally good at heart. Her folks had never met Sam. We watched him scent her like a hound after a rabbit. He sat sweating in the sun, a great ice-milk of a man, with one hand on her shoulder pinning her in place. We didn’t need to hear him to know what he was saying. It was the same thing he’d said all along.

This girl didn’t have the skills we did, she smiled and sweated and waited for the end.

Sam said she could go just as soon as she touched his tattoo.

We know she must’ve asked, what tattoo? We could see her pink lips move in the sunlight. She let him guide her hand. She let out the most blood-curdling shriek any of us had ever heard.

In all the time he’d haunted our home, none of us cared to get too close to Tattoo Sam. This girl was right up against him and she set off running in the other direction. None of us ever saw her again.

He pointed his flat eyes at us and laughed. That laughter haunted us the rest of our days, spilling out of his painted-on mouth and oozing down the cream-white ink that dotted his body. He laughed right up the block, the tattooed man of the Scarborough Traveling Circus, and never came back. You see, Sam wasn’t tattooed. Sam was the tattoo.

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The Fierce Fenimore Clan

The story of the Fenimores begins with a birth and a misdiagnosis. Eunice and Harlow Fenimore were fraternal twins born to Bart and Claudine Fenimore at their Missouri farmstead. The doctor attending the home birth noted that the twins did not show what he considered a normal amount of activity for babies and estimated that they might be developmentally slow. The elder Fenimores took this to mean the infants were disabled and subsequently spent the remainder of the twins’ childhoods treating them as such. The children were barely spoken to, neglected of all but the barest means of survival, and confined to sleeping in a corn crib.

The twins were estimated to be of average-to-middling intelligence, and this early misunderstanding only served to isolate them from outside influence. Since they were never spoken to in complex sentences, they formed what their father dubbed “idiot english” and spoke it rapidly amongst themselves. The two were largely left to their own devices all throughout adolescence. Since the family included nine children(not counting the twins) there was little furor raised when the twins disappeared one day in July of 1908.

In 1935, a reporter was in the area following the trail of a moonshiner when a local storekeeper told him of a mysterious clan of mountain folk who spoke in an impenetrable language. The reporter initially dismissed it as a retread of the Sawney Bean folktale devised to throw him off the trail of the moonshiner. The shopkeeper then took him to a neighbor’s barn, where a feral girl was kept tethered to a wagon wheel.

The girl wore a tattered dress that they’d had to sew around the armpits to keep her from removing it. The storekeeper said she’d been naked, babbling an unknown language and fighting tooth and nail when captured. The reporter was intrigued. Over a series of weeks, he gradually built a rapport with the locals until the day they allowed him to take the girl, leashed, from her pen.

The girl immediately tried to flee through the bushes, calling like a wounded calf. To the reporter’s shock, she was answered from the treeline.

More feral children, some nearly adult age, amassed in the undergrowth. The reporter let go of the girl, afraid of reprisal from such a large force. As the girl fled with her fellows, the reporter signaled to the townsmen, and they began tracking the children.

The Fenimore compound has never been viewed in full, as it spans an extensive amount of tree cover and does not follow any known building plan. The men from town came close to the main development before they fell afoul of several defensive snares set out on the perimeter. They described what looked like a wasps’ nest of boards and other wood scraps, not like any other house they’d ever seen. They took this information back to the reporter. The reporter returned with federal marshals.

Under the guise of busting a moonshine still, the marshals trampled the undergrowth to the compound. Primitive early-warning devices, such as bones strung on a rope, lead most of the clan to flee the oncoming invasion. Those too ill or weak to escape were captured by the marshals. Two of them were Eunice and Harlow Fenimore.

The subsequent investigation turned up a few points of interest. First, that the Fenimores were suffering from a number of preventable diseases but not in poor health. Second, that there seemed to be a high rate of genetic recidivism. Third, that the Fenimores spoke not gibberish, but a complex idioglossia devised and developed by the twins during their years of isolation. The adults showed no compunction whatsoever to learn english, but the few children captured during the raid did, and eventually provided more pieces to the puzzle.

The clan was the result of the union of Eunice and Harlow Fenimore, who produced several children(an exact number was never determined) who thereupon produced grandchildren. Occasionally a Fenimore would abduct a stray child who would then be integrated into the clan, but on the whole the clan was so inbred that every third child was stillborn. The clan survived by a mixture of hunting and scavenging, sometimes stealing from homesteads too far from town to raise an alarm.

The remaining Fenimores were removed from the area by repeated raids. Most were sterilized in keeping with the attitude of the time that medically designated “imbeciles” should not breed. The adults spent the rest of their lives in asylums or group homes when it was determined that they would never fit into society. The children were confined to foster care until they reached the age of eighteen, when they were flushed from the system and all but vanished from written record. The last known Fenimore died of coronary thrombosis in 1998, in an adult home. The Fenimore twins were separated on arrival, Eunice sent to a woman’s sanitarium south of the state, while Harlow was confined to a nearby prison. The twins died on the same day, minutes apart. Harlow from an aneurysm, Eunice from unknown causes.

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The Skytown Mining Disaster

Skytown, Pennsylvania was founded entirely on the principle of harvesting minerals. Like any other coalburg in the state, it made its fortune on the backs of immigrant laborers. The name Skytown referred to the fact that the settlement was so dwarfed by the surrounding mountains, the townsfolk felt as if there was nothing but them and the sky. The town’s founder was Ulysses Byrne, a third generation Scotch-Irish immigrant who began as a journeyman in John C. Osgood’s firm and worked his way up. The mine was originally called “Byrne’s folly,” both for its remote location and for its predicted low yield. The coal seam began as a narrow ridge which broadened unexpectedly after sixty meters. The shanty-town swelled as the seam bore richer and richer yields, feeding into what became a vicious cycle. More miners would be needed to mine the coal, the more coal was mined, the more miners they needed. Byrne was typical of the robber barons of the day, using violent tactics to bust unions and refusing to equip his miners with any kind of safety gear.

The term “Byrne’s folly” took on a new meaning when the baron got wind of the Owl’s Keep tunnel in West Virginia. Boasting a rumored length of 2 miles and a yield of 470,000 short tons of coal per annum, the rumor threw Byrne into a frothing envy. He ordered the sudden expansion of the tunnels, slashing the already lax safety rules to suicidal levels. Workers were expected to haul coal even when in the throes of of late-stage silicosis. Skytown became known as the valley of “little blue men” because of the heavy presence of cyanosis in the miners. Rumors abounded that Byrne would take workers too sick to even stand and bury them in the slag heaps so as to make room for the ever-incoming new miners. Despite Byrne’s tyrannical reputation, news of the expanding mine kept a steady income of fresh blood.

The tunnel ceased expansion after ten years, stabbing nearly three miles into the earth’s surface. The mine produced an estimated 800,000 short tons of coal per annum, but this was second only to the bragging rights Byrne enjoyed. He mocked up a parade in the town’s one and only road, driving the only automobile in town: a Winton that had to be hauled piecemeal up the mountain trail and then assembled in town.

Because expansion of the tunnel gave so little credence to safety, an incident was all but inevitable. One an April morning, three months after the parade, the middle section of the tunnel collapsed. Because the workers were largely undocumented, the final death toll is impossible to gauge properly. Byrne undertook no recovery efforts. For weeks the townspeople complained about hearing the voices of trapped workers, hoping the heavy spring rains would fill the tunnel and silence their ghostly cries. Sinkholes began appearing in the town’s soil, which they attributed to the ghost’s desperate escape attempts. To this day, there is a county-wide folk belief in “little blue men” that collapse tunnels out of spite. 

Be it ghost or engineering oversight, after weeks of deluge the pockmarked soil beneath Skytown liquefied and sucked the settlement and all its people into the earth. All that remains to mark the spot today is the former mine entrance, which now extends only a few meters into the earth, and a plaque dedicated to the fallen miners. 

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The Other Town

We’d heard of Hamelin of course.

We watched the piper come down the only road into town, watched for miles as he grew from a sliver to a splinter from the city walls.

His walk was uneven as if his feet pained him. As he drew near we could see where famine had pecked at him, rending his many-colored cloak in tatters. He begged us for work. If we didn’t renege, we had no need to fear his wrath.

We refused of course. Stoppered our ears and tied our children to us and drove him away with rocks and threats.

Our relief only lasted so long. I’m sure news of the rodent plague has gotten around. They got so bold they hunted the cats, bit the terriers until they collapsed. At night you couldn’t sleep for the sound of gnawing. The rye didn’t even get a chance to ripen. As we grew hungry, we grew desperate. As they grew hungry, they grew bolder. They seemed to multiply without aid of food, suckling pups by the hundreds. They ate the granaries empty. They drank the wells dry. A famine like none before or since descended on us.

And in the midst of all this, the piper came back.

He walked even slower now, for he had no shoes. He seemed humbled, by hunger or some other means. He said he would play for us for a single night’s supper. He bore no ill will to us, we had only to feed him and he would do whatever we asked.

We flung the gates wide and took hold of him. We had no blackthorne, for we had burned it all for fuel, and no rope that hadn’t been chewed through. So we took him to the edge of our barren fields and stoned him to death. His heathen songs had already been the downfall of one town, and obviously he had been the arbiter of our own plague.

A plague which did not lift with his death. In the end, it would have been just as well if he had piped the children away. They were bitten, scratched, plagued to death. We were a town without a future, and so we scuttled the town itself. We burned the buildings and in the flames we could hear the shrieking of a thousand mouths, a thousand worm-tails singeing like candle wicks. Come morning we stood in the ashes of our home, free and yet not.

In the end, who was better off? Was it Hamelin, who was left standing but without joy? Or was it we, who are masters of our own loss?

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