I heard a crunch underfoot as I climbed the brick steps to the church. A surreptitious glance exposed the source: brittle white bone. I bent and lifted a piece to examine it closely. Bird, I decided. The remnant crumbled in my hand. I dusted my palms and tried not to consider it an omen.
I do not particularly care for churches.
I stood on the small landing before double white doors that, I imagined, would open into a modest lobby. White clapboard covered the church's sides and halfway up the pointed steeple where wooden shingles that matched the main roof began, ending at the foot of a gilded cross.
The structure rested on an old red brick foundation with a large expanse of well-manicured lawn spread around it. I noted the complete lack of headstones.
I had traveled to the building so I might photograph one of the stained glass windows. Not for myself, a client wrote to my genealogical research company about the window, stating that it was put up in honor of her great-great-great grandfather, and would I take the time to get her a picture of it if my travels led me in that direction.
I suspected, after reading the feminine cursive script, that there was something she was either forgot to tell me, or something she intentionally left out about her connection to that side of her family. I wondered about that during the drive, and continued to as I stood outside the old church trying to recall the rest of what she wrote in her letter.
There was something about a difficult cantankerous was the word she used, an ill-tempered old man who was the property's caretaker. She went on to say that he made her feel unworthy the last time she visited the site.
Through genealogy, I got to know her family quite thoroughly, but only in an outline sort of way. The side of her family linked to the church's history did not seem particularly unusual, but old families often have secrets, known and not.
I had not planned to travel even close to the town. However, she sent a check for five hundred dollars so I made it my business to drive the extra two hours to shoot the photograph.
What I had not anticipated was that I might find the door locked. I am the type of man who expected certain things to be status quo. Unlocked church doors fit that category nicely, although it was unlikely I would be the person to use such an entrance.
Outside large cities, I thought, hand on the rigid brass knob, where criminal anarchy rules the streets, a house of worship should be readily available for anyone, at anytime...for sanctuary if nothing else.
Yet, there I stood almost two hundred miles from my home in Columbia, South Carolina, by a church near the Tennessee/Alabama border, in the town of Dunigineton that was what we as children called a two-blinker, and the door was locked.
I began to think I had made a mistake accepting payment for something I might not be able to deliver. Only a minor annoyance, since I had already cashed the check, but a great waste of time.
I Knew I could leave and return another day, but that meant using four hours instead of the original two, which as I said, were more than I intended to spend driving to get the picture.
I wanted to shout, but was once informed that no person with an ounce of decency shouts in a churchyard, even if it is not a place of significance for them.
My camera bag began to drag on my shoulder, so I hiked it up and trudged down the steps.
Wandering slowly around the structure, I attempted to catch sight of the correct window, thinking I might be able to shoot it from outside. No such luck.
Camellia and lilac towered above my head. Therefore, although I was near enough to the building that I might clearly see the window, I could not get a shot of it without the bushes obscuring the glass completely, or, at another angle, partially screened by a hedge of Redbud.
I walked away from the church and saw all the windows, but not the detailed patterns created by the colored glass.
Setting the camera bag on the lawn, I squatted next to it, already knowing I did not have a telephoto lens. I looked just the same and found I was right. The only thing left to do, besides leaving in frustration, was to try to find someone who could open the doors: the cantankerous old caretaker.
Not far from the church sat a small, tin roofed white clapboard house. It appeared well kept, and a wispy tendril of smoke drifted from a badly warped brick chimney.
Leaving the gadget bag in the car, I followed a well-trodden path to the house’s front door and knocked. The oak panel sprang open as if the person on the other side had expectantly anticipated my arrival.
I confronted a short, gnarled old man. His face reminded me of a crumpled paper bag that someone had reopened but had not successfully smoothed flat. Even his coloring matched. His eyebrows were bushy bristles of white hair sticking out as if he had been frightened. Ears too large for his skull hung beneath a flowing mane of white; his green eyes, amazingly as clear as a nineteen-year-old boy's eyes, sparkled with the unconcealed humor of a man who has witnessed much, and thought he understood the impact of human activities on the progress of time.
He watched me as I colored when I realized my silence was inappropriate.
His voice was deep, resonant; his face moved with an awakening smile, "Can we help you?"
"I hope so, but first please forgive my unannounced arrival. I'm Paul Bilkens." I reached out my right hand.
He grasped my hand firmly while raising an eyebrow questioningly, still smiling. "We took no offense, Mister Bilkens. Seems obvious you were not expecting me to be here." His grip was dry, strong, almost calculated.
I looked to see if we were alone, saw no one else in the room, and said, "Well, sir, I didn't quite know what to expect. I've been over to the church and found the door locked so, I suppose, I did consider that no one lived here."
"Humph. Seems you were mistaken." He stood aside and waved me in. "Please, come in. I'm the caretaker. Name's Bobby Zedekiah."
I entered the small house and felt my eyes widen. Speaking through the amazement I felt, I said, "Thank you, Mister Zedekiah. I won't take much of your time."
He shrugged as I walked into a compact living room crammed with a huge array of objects. There was so much to see I found it impossible to focus on any one article.
I spied a wonderful collection of Carnival Glass, the lacy colorful kind that every grandmother once had in a kitchen window. A row of Delft blue porcelain plates stood on their rims, precariously balanced on a waist high chair rail. The cyan patterns under the clear glaze showed vistas of windmills and small boats with sails billowing to pull them across the frozen, blue China Sea. Old tools rested where it looked as if they'd been dropped and forgotten, and a distant shelf, head high, held several small skeletons, some wired into poses, others just piles of white calcified sticks.
My eyes traveled in every direction, taking in one surprise after another.
"My lord," I exclaimed, "how'd you get it all in here?"
I wiped sweat from my upper lip. "Ah, I'm terribly sorry. I didn't mean to be so nosy. I'm afraid I was--"
Bobby looked around the small room. "I suppose it's an awful lot to have in such a small a space." His hands lifted, turned over, and dropped to his sides. "There's just no where else to keep it all."
With considerable effort, I stop examining the contents of his home and return to the reason I was there in the first place. "Is it possible that I might gain admittance to the church?"
His head tilted to the left while his eyes examined me curiously, cautiously from under those billowing brows. "Why do you want to get inside? You don't seem like a religious man."
"I need to photograph a window for a client."
"A client? You're an attorney are you?"
"Oh, no! I'm a genealogist, and a woman I've done some work for claims that one of the windows was donated in the memory of an ancestor."
"That would be a Dunigineton of course."
His words surprised me. "Yes, how did you know?"
"Easy. Every single window's in memory of one Dunigine, or another." His face lit and I would have sworn he was about to laugh at what he surmised to be my obvious ignorance. Then, I think, he realized that I could not have known, so he kept it to himself.
"A Dunigine built the Church nearly two hundred years ago, and they alone used it. Most all direct descendants are dead now, or moved off, so it's locked."
"I'm sorry, that doesn't make a bit of sense to me. Why not let other people worship there? Without use it'll quickly fall into ruin."
"Yes, of course it might. But you see there aren't other people living in the area that might want to use it. The land surrounding the church belongs to the heirs, indirect descendants I call them, and they, bless their hearts, never, do more than send enough money to keep it all going."
"But the town I passed through getting here?"
"Theirs. You didn't see anyone on the streets did you?"
"Well, no. Now that I think about it. That's damn strange." I studied him for a minute. "You take care of all of this by yourself?" I waved my hand to indicate the surrounding area.
"Young man, what do I look like to you?"
"You look like a--"
"An old man. It is okay to say it. After all, I earned the title." He chuckled. "I get help when I need it."
"Yes." I wanted to finish, photograph the window, and leave quickly. "Well, can you get me inside the church?"
"I can." He paused and looked at his feet. "There's one problem."
I waved at the disarray surrounding us and asked, "You mean like this?"
"I really do need the photograph. I've been paid in advance, drove all the way out here and--"
"We'll let you in provided you only photograph the window; nothing else, no matter what you see. No touching and you cannot share the experience with anyone." He stopped abruptly as if someone had entered the room and their presence interrupted. His eyes moved slowly side to side.
Sighing deeply, he forced air out with a grunt. "Oh, dear." Bobby straightened, shook his shoulders, went to the front door, and stopped next to a rack filled with keys, most of which were the old skeleton type. "Let's see if I can find the right one."
I watched him examine one after another, pushing each aside, holding it back with his left thumb and forefinger, while checking the next. The keys slowly piled up until he had examined about fifty of them. Suddenly he stopped and I thought that perhaps he had changed his mind.
His white eyebrows moved up and down as his head turned to me. "Had it in my pocket the whole time."
He grinned as if helpless and embarrassed. His hand patted a bulging hip pocket. "Old age can't live with it and can't escape without it."
With that, he opened the front door and stepped outside. I followed, and watched his sprightly steps as he crossed to the church. Squinting, I wondered just how much his age really affected him.
I had to rush to catch him, and reached his side as he climbed the steps to the church. I froze. His feet did not make a sound on the bricks, yet the bones still lay scattered about as if strewn by a satiated, careless cat.
With an ominous chill combing my spine, I joined him on the small landing, and listened carefully to the crunch of my steps.
Bobby slipped the long key out of his hip pocket and with a steady hand inserted it into the lock, his movements sensual, grotesque. It clicked loudly as he turned it, as if the lock had released its grasp on time itself. The door swung open on well-oiled hinges.
Gloom brushed against me as I followed him inside. It was not a visual thing, but a feeling that permeated the air with a clammy, loose grip that wrapped the back of my neck.
Light pierced the colored windows, and danced across sprays of fine dust particles, but where the rays settled, illumination was uneven, shadows distinct but torn.
Every pew from the front of the church to the back appeared filled with rows of large unidentifiable objects covered in white linen cloth.
"Touch nothing, sir." The old man's words arrived as my hand began to move toward the nearest of the mounded objects. "We would appreciate it if you'd take your picture. It isn't right that you stay here any longer than needed to accomplish that one goal."
"Yes." I looked quickly at all the windows and spotted the one my client requested that I copy. "That's it...to the right of the altar." I pointed.
Bobby nodded vigorously as if he already knew which one I would choose. "The finest and the oldest."
I asked, as I removed the camera from my shoulder while walking to the window, "You know its history?"
"Only some rumored details." He reached the place in the aisle nearest the window before I did and stopped. "You see the bearded figure in the center?"
"Uh huh." My hands lifted the Minolta. I focused it carefully and shot the first frame. "Who is he?"
"His name is Hamuel, which means Wrath of God. See the fire in his eyes? And there, lying at his feet, are the fallen ones, Adam and Eve. See the bitten apple he holds aloft? The serpent's eyes reflected in hers?"
I studied the glass carefully, admired the rich realistic coloring, and mentally noted the figures as he pointed them out. "Who is the other, in the background?"
"Ahh." He sounded excited. "You noticed! Most fail to see him. They get so enraptured by the colors in the rest of the window." The old man placed a hand on my shoulder. "You're not an heir here to test me, are you?"
"Oh, no sir. I told you the truth. I'm here for pictures only." I held aloft the camera as if to prove it, then snapped a couple more shots of the window. "Honestly."
He removed his hand. "The distant figure that seems about to blend into the Tree of Life in the background is named Zaphnathpaaneah."
"Good lord, how do you remember it all?"
"Practice, of course, many years of practice." A wry sounding chuckle escaped his old lips as he stepped back from me, turned and stared into my eyes.
"You know what the name means?"
"No. Will you tell me?"
"It means Revealer of a Secret." The man mouthed the last words as he spoke them, almost like a silent echo.
I shivered as invisible fingers moved from my vertebrae and through the hair across the back of my head. Slowly I hung the camera strap around my neck and sniffed the air. It had a faint metallic smell to it, tinged with the odor of very old, almost forgotten times.
A sudden voice in my mind told me to get the hell out of the building.
I couldn't move, so asked, "What’s the secret?"
"Our home is filled with many things, so too is this old church. There’s nothing more for us to tell you."
"There's a relationship between the two places? The objects in them?" I felt like I was playing a game, an important one, but a game none-the-less.
"We should leave now." He pushed past me, heading to the door I left ajar after entering the church.
As if freed from whatever held me earlier, I followed him down the aisle. Persistently curious, I asked, "What're the other secrets in this church?"
"These?" He stopped by the doorway, pivoted, and waved a hand as if to encompass the pews and their surroundings. "Isn't it obvious to you?"
"No. I'm afraid it's not." I do not know what possessed me right then, but I reached out and whisked the white covering off the nearest of the large mounds that rested on the end of the closest pew.
I heard my gasp as my throat compressed. I had uncovered the mummified remains of an old woman. Without hesitating, I uncovered another, and another, one by one revealing a line of preserved bodies. Their flesh looked desiccated, tightly shriveled, and in places, drawn back exposing whitened bone. Their hands appeared claw-like, clasped against their chests in prayer. Some had small red covered books resting on their bony laps, heads down so their dead eyes stared at the lined pages, lips shrunken away to uncover death-mask grins. Others held ornately bejeweled rosaries. Most appeared to have died of natural causes one or, perhaps, two seemed to have been helped along by hands strong enough to twist their necks. I could see the imprint of fingers in the brittle skin, fractured vertebrae.
My voice slipped out, loose with fear. "What the hell is this?"
The old man laughed a nasty sound. "A place where you will now spend eternity. We warned you to leave the heirs alone." In an instant he was on me, fingers locked around my throat.
The old caretaker was incredibly strong and wasted little time or energy strangling me. I nearly dropped my camera as the light began to fade from my eyes. Making a final desperate effort to stay alive, I groped for and found the Minolta, then swung the camera at the side of his head.
Most of my strength had slipped with the lack of oxygen, but there was enough left to save me.
I heard a loud splintering noise and when I reached to touch him, felt a warm stickiness coat my hand. The old man's fingers dropped from my throat as he crumpled at my feet.
My eyes followed as eerie whistling groans emanated from his bluing lips. Squatting, I reached for him, and lifted his shattered skull. It was then it happened. Something shivered its way through me as he died, leaving me with the sensation of being invaded, changed from who I was, to who I have become.
Ironically, from that day to this I have remained in the small house next to the old white church. My automobile sits on flattened tires behind the house, my camera, and equipment on the shelf with the forgotten collection of keys.
I am the caretaker now, and as age creeps through my cells, I await a curious visitor who will take an interest in one special window, and the contents of the church.
Inside the church, the old man I killed sits under his own shroud in the last pew. Next to him is a spot for me.