An Unusual Boy
by Jared Cook
The boy was different.
He could see things. Things that others could not. Hidden things. Lost things. Things that had been misplaced. Things that had been lost to time and death and forgetfulness, devoured by the void.
It started when he was quite young. Others in the neighborhood practiced the art of spiritual sight and he began to make little essays in the craft himself. Soon he could let his mind go and see images of ancient people that once lived on the land where he lived, regaling his family with stories of their modes of life. But to go further he needed the right instrument: a stone with just the right power, a key to seeing.
Eventually, the boy did get such a key-stone. One story says that he found his stone on the shores of Lake Erie. Another says that he found it 30 feet under the ground while helping dig a well for a neighbor whose daughter herself practiced the art. Maybe both stories are true—he did, after all, eventually have at least two of these seeing stones.
Like other scryers who had practiced this craft for centuries, he would take the key-stone and put it into something that he could draw up around his face to block out all the light. Others had used a black silk handkerchief, or a whole darkened room. The boy used an old white hat. As he drew the hat up to his face and looked into the darkness that held the key-stone, his spiritual sight was awakened, and he could see the unseen.
There were a lot of unseen things that a person in western New York in the opening decades of the 19th century might want to uncover. Or fear to uncover. Millions of acres of virgin forest still covered the landscape, and the woods were dark and full of unseen things. The landscape was—and still is—streaked with the leavings of the thousand-foot ice sheets that once covered the land: The finger lakes, long fjord-like inland seas gouged out as if by a clawed hand raking from south to north. Drumlins, the great north-south-oriented hills, rising hundreds of feet out of the earth like wight-haunted burial mounds on a giant scale. Kettles, the steep-sided, green algae-choked pools and bogs left where giant ice chunks from the ancient world were buried in the glacial detritus and then melted, becoming havens for weird diabolic spirits when the forests overtook them. Winding eskers like the trails of some colossal ancient worm that gnawed the earth.
To the boy and his family, who had only lately moved there from New England, where their people had lived for a century, the land of western New York was wild and uninhabited. But in truth it was the heart of the homeland of the Seneca nation who, having thrown their lot lucklessly in with the losing side in the recent war, had been forced to cede their homeland to New York and resettle further west, near the Falls of Niagara, only a few decades before. So the land was haunted by the ghosts of the Seneca. The great hill people was what they called themselves in their own language, believing that their origins lay in an ancient settlement at the base of a great hill that rose above Canandaigua Lake, on which stood a ring of ruined stones and a dike that had been a great stone watchtower and fortress of some earlier age. Some said that the Seneca had built the fort. Others said that it was already there when the Seneca came and had been built by a yet more ancient people now lost to the void. But for more than seven hundred years the Seneca had built their cities and fortresses there, grown corn, beans, and squash, fished, hunted deer and other game, made war on their enemies, worshipped their gods, loved their spouses, nurtured their children, and buried their dead.
The living may be forced off, but thirty generations of ghosts do not leave so easily. As they looked on the remains of the Seneca, their cities, their sturdy bark longhouses, their cornfields, their ancient highways, and those mysterious stone ruins that crowned the tops of some of those mysterious hills, there were whispers among these devout, Bible-toting New Englanders that perhaps they may have been some long-lost branch of the biblical house of Israel.
But Seneca ghosts weren’t the only ghosts. These lands were haunted also by rumors of unknown Spanish explorers, pirates, and others that had, maybe, come to this land a century or two before and had, maybe, found silver, just as they had come thousands of miles to the south and found gold, and maybe, had hidden it in the earth for safekeeping. And maybe it was still there. And the New Englanders that came also brought with them their own ghosts—the memories of the familiar spirits, forest-haunting devils, shape-shifting witches, and malevolent sorcerers that had afflicted their congregationalist ancestors in the Massachusetts witch panic a century before.
The boy lived in an age that thought itself enlightened, progressive, shedding the superstition of the past, the elites of which sneered at superstition and embraced the true light of biblical religion and scientific advance. But on the frontier, on the edges of the wild, in the woods and farms of western New York, haunted by all these ghosts and half-seen rumors and remnants of ancient worlds, the old ways still persisted.
And so the boy learned to use his gift to see the unseen.
Naturally, the boy and his cash-poor family and others like them in the neighborhood began to wonder if they couldn’t turn his gift to profit. They formed a sort of loose partnership. He, like others, would look in his stone and see that there were valuable things buried. And he and his friends would dig for them. And in truth they often came up empty-handed, but that didn’t weaken their faith in his gift.
Not everyone took kindly to the boy’s willingness to look into the unseen world of spirits and ghosts and hidden, buried things. The educated clergy, trying with their might to civilize and catechize the unchurched, half-civilized inhabitants of these backwoods places, denounced such things as unbiblical, wicked, deceptions of Satan. And even uneducated folks got religion and armed themselves with the commission of God and the Bible to take the gospel of Christ into every forsaken settlement in these woods. And the boy, who himself believed deeply in God, found himself drawn to the religious life. He envied those who testified that Christ had saved them from a fiery hell, and that the holy spirit of Christ had entered into them and made them shout praises to God. He feared for the state of his soul, cried out to God for mercy, and for wisdom, and had a vision where he saw God, who assured him that his sins were forgiven and then forbade the boy to join with the religious crowds, telling him that the educated clergy who had condemned his gift were themselves lost. That they had no claim on the power of God. God then told the boy that he himself was to be God’s instrument to accomplish some great marvel.
But that was it. For nearly four years he heard nothing more from God about this mission.
* * *
Now the boy was nearly a man. He began to wonder if God had abandoned him, if maybe his gift was in fact a deception of the devil. Again, he worried over his eternal soul and again he determined to pray and ask God for reassurance of his standing before him, as he had done four years before. And then, on the night of the equinox, the cusp between summer and fall, that liminal time when the curtain separating the seen and unseen worlds is weakest, he made his attempt.
God did not appear or speak to him again, but his prayer was answered. A spirit appeared—the ghost of a long-dead man. One of those ancient people that left their strange marks on the land. Not one of the Seneca who had lately left, he would soon learn, but one of a much older people, the ancestors of the ancestors of the Seneca, the boy guessed. The ghost spoke of a treasure that he had hidden in the earth nearby before he died. It was the story of those lost people that once had filled the land, written on metal tablets in strange runes, bound into a book, and buried in one of those mysterious drumlins. And together with the book, a set of key-stones that had been prepared to allow the finder of the book to read with spiritual sight its ancient writing. The boy saw the place as the ghost spoke to him.
The boy had heard of such things before. In the lore of his treasure-seeking craft, sometimes a trove would be guarded by a protective spirit—not always friendly. And to obtain the treasure, the seer would have to appease the spirit, or otherwise counteract the protective magic with some other kind of spell or prayer or talisman.
Three times the ghost appeared that equinox night. Three times he told the boy of the treasure. But that wasn’t all. The spirit told the boy that he was a messenger from God, and he spoke the words of the ancient biblical prophets, bringing together the world of God and religion and the world of the mysterious unseen past that the boy looked into with his gift.
The next day the boy went to the spot and uncovered the hoard. It was in a box of stone, covered with a large stone that he struggled to move. There was the golden book. And there were the ancient seeing-stones. He reached in and pulled out the book and set it on the ground. He then turned back to the hiding-place to see what other valuable treasures there might be. When he turned around again, the book had disappeared. He turned frantic back to the hole and saw the book back in it again. Relieved, he reached for it again and the ghost appeared in terrifying wrath. With a flick of his ghastly hand, the spirit threw the boy violently from the hole sprawling on the ground on his back. With a voice that shook the earth, the spirit explained that this was no ordinary treasure—it was cursed. The curse, the boy would later learn, of an ancient prophet who stood on a city wall and prophesied of death and of utter annihilation because of the unrighteousness of that people, and who cursed all the treasures of that people that they would become “slippery”—impossible to hold onto, always just out of reach.
The only way to escape this curse, the ghost explained, was that the boy had to repent and call upon God until by God’s grace he was purged of all desire to make any monetary use of the treasure. But he wasn’t ready yet. “Come back in a year,” the spirit said, “and bring the right person.”
The boy knew as soon as he heard those words who the right person was: his oldest brother, who was his close friend and the strongest supporter of his gift. But when his brother died a month later of some unknown stomach ailment, his hopes were crushed. The brother’s death hit the family hard. Without his labor, the family missed their mortgage payments and lost their farm, with the proper frame home the boy’s brother had been building.
The next year on that same liminal equinox night, the boy went back to the hiding-place on the hill. The thin, waning crescent moon sailed over the trees. The spirit was there, standing over the hoard in the air, his face shining like lightning below the cold stars.
“Why have you come alone?” the spirit demanded.
“My brother is dead,” explained the boy.
“I told you to bring the right person,” the spirit rejoined. And with that, in a flash, the spirit was gone and the stone was immovable.
“What must I do to get this book!?” the boy screamed into the night sky. And he heard the spirit’s words, whether in his head or in his ears, he could not tell: Bring the right person.
“But he is dead! Who else could be the right person?” Nothing but black silence.
* * *
As the year dragged on into winter and then into spring, the boy continued to work as a day laborer as he could and to practice his gift as he had before, looking into the stone to locate valuable things under the earth that could be dug up. An old gentleman from northern Pennsylvania, came up through the finger lakes, past the great hill of the Seneca with its ruined fortress, looking for the boy. He was searching for a trove of Spanish silver rumored to be somewhere under the earth of his land and he needed both laborers to dig and someone with the boy’s gift to help him find it. Rumor of the boy’s gift had reached the old gentleman even in Pennsylvania, some 130 miles to the southeast. He came and he offered money. So the boy and his father went.
In Pennsylvania they boarded with an upstanding pillar of the small frontier hamlet, an old Methodist stalwart who had also come from New England, but whose extended family’s ramifying branches now dominated the young community. The boy took a liking to their host’s daughter, a woman a year-and-half-older than him. Her striking dark eyes and dark hair made a contrast against her fair skin that caught his eye. She was a devout Methodist, like her father, but she was also a child of the frontier, drawn to its ghosts and wild darkness. And, like the boy, she saw no contradiction between her biblical faith in Christ and her fascination with the unseen. So it was that the boy caught her eye, too. Day after day the boy and his fellow laborers looked and dug with no success. But the boy took advantage of his time there by spending it with the woman, meeting as often as they could in secret at the house of a nearby friend to avoid her father’s disapproving eye.
Summer came to an end once again, and the boy headed north to meet the spirit on the hill at the equinox. This time he brought a friend and fellow sometime seer from the neighborhood, one of his old treasure-hunting partners; but this friend was not the right person and once again, he slouched back from the hill empty-handed.
The boy had almost lost hope. The next year he broke tryst and did not go to the hill on the equinox. He threw himself instead into his work in Pennsylvania and into the arms of the woman. After the Christmas holidays that year, they stole out when her father wasn’t looking, slipped across the state line into New York, found a justice of the peace to marry them, and headed back north to the boy’s family and their cramped, smoky log dwelling. But as they passed the hill with its trysting-place under the full January moon, the spirit appeared in the cold mist and rebuked the boy for his inattention to the mission the spirit had given him from God. The spirit then pronounced a doom upon the boy: “This is your last chance. If you do not get the book by the next fall equinox, you will never get it. And you will be cut off from the presence of God.”
Again the boy heard the echo of the spirit’s words: bring the right person. It dawned on him as the winter wore on that the woman, now his wife, might be the right person. If the search for the silver mine in Pennsylvania had been a failure maybe it had brought him there for a purpose after all. In the spring the couple returned to Pennsylvania, reconciled with the woman’s father, and lived in a small house on his land. By this time, the old gentleman from Pennsylvania had given up the Spanish silver expedition but the boy hired out as a laborer to local farmers and to all appearances tried to put his treasure seeking behind him. They joined the local Methodist Sunday School—at least until another member learned of the boy’s seeric gift and objected to such a superstitious person sharing membership in their class.
But as summer again rolled to a close and fall approached, the boy prepared for his last desperate attempt to recover the golden book and the ancient seeing-stones. He worried that the old partner he had taken two years before would be there and would try to take the treasure from him and sent his father to watch the home for any movements.
The equinox came, the night black as silk shrouding the new moon. Near midnight, he and the woman dressed all in black and climbed into a borrowed carriage. Without lantern, they drove slowly to the hill with the hiding-place. At the base of the hill the woman knelt in the leaves and mud next to the carriage-wheel and prayed.
He walked up into the night leaving her alone. The trees sighed. The wind shifted. The leaves rustled. Time passed. She still prayed.
Then faint footsteps in the leaves. The boy stepped out of the dark grey mist that shrouded him.
“Emma,” he whispered, “we have them.”
“The plates,” she answered. “Where are they?”
“They are safe,” he assured her, “I’ve hidden them in a tree up there. But look—”
She looked and he opened the cloth he held, revealing the ancient seeing stones.
“They are marvelous!” he said. “I can see anything.”