It was in a sweltering dusk that Charlie stumbled on a tombstone and lay panting in the grass. He longed to stay where he had fallen, to sleep for days in the peace of the old graveyard, but where the dead were buried, the living must be near. He needed a more secluded bed or else he would surely be discovered.
He had awakened in the early hours of the previous morning, head bloody and ringing, to find himself in a black mist, tangled in the arms of a German corpse, left for dead on the Brooklyn shore. He’d thought he heard the soft lapping of oars slowly fading over the harbor, but he hadn’t dared cry out for fear of alerting the British to his position. In the dark stillness, he had searched for living allies and found none, nor any sign of the Patriot Army’s boats. That was when he’d known for certain he was alone, except for any prisoners of war the British might already have taken—as they would soon take him if he weren’t swift to flee.
By dawn, he was on his way eastward. From Jamaica Pass he looked back and saw the mist clearing as though slain by the enemy’s advance. They moved ominously out of it, the kilted Black Watch as well as the Hessian troops with their tall, glinting brass helmets and brighter bayonets. The Patriots had avoided defeat by surrendering Long Island. Now the enemy was dispersing along the northern shore, spreading out to take possession of the coast and thus securing the interior, entrapping Charlie.
He made his way through dense woods, avoiding roads that might carry British troops. He skirted farms and towns as well, fearing that anyone he approached for help might turn him over to the King’s men. But half the houses he passed proved to be freshly abandoned, as though news of the battle had flown ahead of him. The Long Islanders must be rushing across the Sound to Connecticut, abandoning their property. Seeing this, he grew more convinced that he must hide himself, for only Loyalists would stay behind to welcome the troops.
That night he kept on despite cruel thickets and drenching August rains, though exhaustion and the blows he’d taken on his skull kept dragging him down to sleep. When morning came he was still struggling forward, though at a much slower pace. His toes showed through his shoes; his breeches were little more than rags; he’d long ago lost his coat and hat. Now, half-naked, he took more care than ever to avoid being sighted. He gorged on berries, drank from streams, tried to forget about sleep. But by the time he collapsed in the graveyard, another night approaching, he knew that he could go no farther without rest.
Just a bit more, he told himself. Get to the bottom of this hill, crawl under a holly bush if you have to, and maybe you can sleep an hour or two—but no more.
He had hardly begun the last concerted effort to drag himself forward, when he heard a low chuckle from the trees behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw three men, two in red coats and one in German blue, coming quickly toward him.
“Well, now, who’s this?” said the first, his face as red as his coat.
“Looks like a rebel to me, captain,” said the second Englishmen, shorter and stouter than the first.
“Either that or a gravedigger,” the captain said.
“Why not a rebel gravedigger?”
“Aye. There’s plenty of need for rebel graves, that’s certain.”
The German was tall and bearded, with long blond hair streaming down from his three-cornered hat. He stared at Charlie with none of the false good humor of the others. He carried a carbine rifle in one hand and a pickax in the other; in fact, all three men were armed with picks along with their guns. The captain buried the tip of his pick in the earth and came up to Charlie.
“Get up,” he said.
Wearily, Charlie rose. The captain lifted his musket and laid the end of the barrel against Charlie’s brow.
“Where’d you get that wound?” he asked, nudging an infected gash with the gun barrel. Charlie winced and started to brush the gun away, then realized that the captain must have wanted him to do something of the sort. He let his hands fall.
“Ah, wise lad. You must have learned something in the flatlands, eh? There’s nothing like a good beating to drive a lesson into a boy.”
The German seemed irritated by the proceedings. Hefting his pick over his shoulder, he started past Charlie.
“Where’s he going?” the captain said.
“Wolfgang!” said the other. “Listen to the captain, man.”
“God damn it,” said the captain. “I’ve had enough of this one. I knew there was no good reason for him to have left his troops. He’s probably a deserter.”
“Then why would he join us, sir?” asked the short man. Again he called after the German. “You’ll have to learn to take orders from Englishmen, you know.”
“Here, I’ll give him an order he understands.”
The captain aimed his musket at the German’s legs. As the man’s finger started to squeeze the trigger, something stirred up in Charlie. He let out a cry and his hand shot out to knock the barrel aside. When the gun discharged, it was pointing at the sky. The captain let out a snarl and spun on Charlie, clubbing him with the gunstock. Charlie dropped on the damp, sticky grass, holding his head, blinded. He felt a sharp pricking of his throat and opened his eyes to find the captain standing over him, scowling. His sword was drawn, its point somewhere out of sight below Charlie’s vision. When he swallowed, he felt it piercing deeper into his neck.
“Nein.” said a gruff voice. Charlie looked to one side and saw that the German had his carbine trained on the captain.
All blood drained from the officer’s ruddy face. For a moment, no one moved. Then the German drew back the lock with an audible click. A few seconds later, the captain’s sword wavered and finally swept free of Charlie’s neck.
“Get up,” he said.
Charlie rose, supporting himself on a tombstone.
“You’re a prisoner of war now,” the captain went on without another look at the German, as though nothing had happened. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to lie about in a comfortable cell, eating our bread and wasting our water. We have work for you. You’ve come at a fortunate time.”
He turned around for the pick, uprooted it, and thrust it at Charlie, who caught it in numb fingers. His exhaustion was largely forgotten, unfelt. The captain gestured toward the graveyard, indicating that they should proceed. The German lowered his carbine and strode on. Puffing slightly, the stout little Englishman hurried after him.
“Go on,” said the captain. “Get to work.”
The woods were full of headstones, many of them fallen and thus hidden in the tall grass. Charlie stumbled several times, the pick’s weight unbalancing him; finally he landed heavily on his knees and knelt there with his head bowed, unmoving.
“Up,” the captain said. “Up or I’ll blow your head off.”
Charlie thrust one foot ahead of him, leaning his full weight on the pick handle. He couldn’t rise. A moment later, a strong arm encircled his shoulders and lifted him to his feet. The German had come to his aid.
“Thank you,” Charlie whispered.
“He’s not fit for work, captain,” said the small man.
“He’ll help us build ovens or be baked in them,” the captain said. “And there’s where he’ll start.”
Charlie followed the captain’s finger to a row of grey granite crypts, each of them nearly the height of a man.
“We can’t carry those, captain. We’d best send for a wagon.”
“We’re not going to carry them, Parkes. We’ll build them right where they stand. Easier to transport supplies here than carry a quarry back to camp. We’ll send for the cooks, that’s all. Now get to work.”
“Aye, captain. You heard him, Wolfgang; you too, boy. Get to work. Haul up those stones.”
“But…but those are gravestones,” Charlie said. “You can’t disturb the dead.”
“Rebel dead,” the captain said. “We’ll put those stones to some good use, building ovens to feed the living.”
“Go on, boy,” said Parkes. “It’s your bread we’ll be baking. You look hungry.”
“But they weren’t reb—Patriots,” Charlie argued. “They were here before this trouble, before the taxes or any of it.”
“Patriots, is it?” the captain snarled. “I’ve heard enough out of you to last me a lifetime, boy. How’d you like to lie down here forever with these dear friends of yours?”
Charlie walked to the first of the crypts, where Wolfgang had already begun to dig at the base of one stone. The German’s pick grated against the granite, leaving bright bone-white streaks in the lichen-mottled surface. Charlie circled around to the other side of the tomb, aware of the captain’s gaze. Parkes stood loading a pipe with tobacco, his own pick propped against his leg.
“Should I take a run back to camp, captain?” he asked.
“Fetch the cooks?”
“A run?” the captain said sarcastically. “On your fat stumps? No, I think we’ll wait till we’ve assembled a few ovens— give the cooks something to do when they get here. You could put yourself to better use digging up stones.”
“Right away, sir. Just as soon as I finish this bowl.”
“Bowl be damned, Parkes. Do it now.”
With a sigh, the portly Parkes strolled over to stand behind Charlie, as if he would supervise the progress of the work.
“Hold your pick a moment, boy,” he said. “Let’s have a look at whose sleep we’re disturbing, shall we?”
Charlie stood back and Parkes came up to the stone. He stood on his toes, craned his neck sideways at an awkward angle, and mumbled a few syllables, reading to himself. When he moved back from the stone, his face had gone white.
“Captain,” he muttered, hurrying away.
“What is it, Parkes? Another excuse to keep you from your duties?”
“No, sir. I think it’s a Mason, sir.”
“A Mason? What are you talking about?”
“Come look for yourself, sir. There’s signs and sigils of the sort the colonel warned us away from.”
“I don’t know, sir, not being a Mason myself. But the colonel was very particular about not disturbing any Masons, as you must surely recall, sir. Those were his direct orders to you, sir.”
“I remember his orders, damn you. Let me see.”
The captain accompanied Parkes back to the stone. The German meanwhile kept digging, his pick striking the granite with a grating sound that turned Charlie’s stomach. While the cpatain leaned over the crypt, Charlie tried to imagine what might be lying within. He had seen plenty of death in recent weeks, but it was all of the fresh, bloody kind. Whatever those stones contained would be at best shrivelled and dry, if not mere dust. Still, he did not like the thought of disturbing it. He hoped the soul that slumbered here could see and understand his predicament, and that if it were inclined toward any form of ghostly revenge, it would show him mercy.
But he had seen too many of his comrades, alive and shouting one moment, fall down in battle and never rise again, to believe that something so long dead could ever manage to stir against its enemies, no matter how just the cause.
The captain leaned across the stone, tracing the carved figures there with his fingers, then he shook his head. “I don’t know what these are, but they’re not Masonic.”
“Take my word for it, Parkes, these are nothing to do with the colonel. And he won’t know a thing about it anyway, because when we build the ovens we’ll turn the inscriptions inward. Blank stone, that’s all he’ll see. Now stop putting off your labor.”
“But sir, it’s almost night. We should be getting back to camp.”
“We’ll camp here if we must. Now there’s an idea. Why don’t you go gather some firewood? Be useful for once.”
Seeming mildly offended, Parkes strolled into the trees. The captain followed him a short distance, as if to ensure that he went about his task properly, and Charlie took the opportunity to look at the inscriptions on the surface of the stone. The dusk had deepened to such an extent that very little should have been visible, but the lines and designs must have been incised very deeply. Each one looked like a thin edge of night, infinitely deep instead of mere fractions of an inch. He almost thought he saw stars glimmering down inside them, though that must have been flecks of the silvery mica that always dwells in granite. The letters of the deceased’s name were very queer indeed, written in a script that bore only a superficial resemblance to any Charlie had ever seen. Of course, he couldn’t read. Apart from the letters, the stone was covered with a wealth of intricate symbols, star-shapes and triangles, all growing like leaves from a carved vine that almost completely covered the crypt’s topmost slab.
He had just stepped back to raise his pick when the German let out a warning cry. With a grinding sound, the sides of the tomb began to shift and tilt, caving in on themselves like the walls of the Dagonite temple. The German’s digging had undermined the whole support, though it scarcely seemed possible that four thick walls could be so easily toppled. The heavy slab atop the four drove them sideways to the earth, where they collapsed almost gently, unbroken. The coffin must have been buried beneath the earth, and not imprisoned in the stones as Charlie had feared. There was nothing but hollow space in there.
Parkes and the captain came running from the woods.
“What happened here?” the captain said.
The German stared at him as if he were an idiot.
“Our first oven!” Parkes cried. “I can almost smell that bread. Please, captain, let me run for a cook. We’ll eat fresh loaves tonight.”
“While the rest of the army dines on stale?” said the captain, but something in this must have pleased him, for he nodded, smiling, and told Parkes, “Run back, then. But be discreet. One cook, and bring only enough supplies for our own needs. We’ll give the oven a trial to break it in; let heat scour the grave-grubs from the stone.”
“What about the boy?” Parkes asked. “The prisoner?”
“We can’t send him back just yet or he’ll no doubt tell them what we’re up to. He bears us no love, you can be certain.”
Parkes rubbed his hands together, barely restraining his delight, and hurried away faster than Charlie would have thought was in his power. The dark was oppressive now, no less so the heat, which seemed to have increased with nightfall. Heat lightning flickered far off, followed seconds later by thunder.
“Bloody provincial weather,” the captain griped. “Heat and damp. It’s like living in an armpit.”
Charlie bent over the fallen stones and said softly, “And like a louse, you infest it.”
He heard a soft chuckle. Wolfgang was grinning as he slid his hands under a slab.
“You don’t speak, but you understand, don’t you?” Charlie whispered.
The German nodded. Together, they lifted the carved slab between them. Lightning flashed again, nearer than before, catching in the ornate stonework and filling with woods with light.
Between them, first digging a firepit and then erecting the stones upon it, they finished the oven before Parkes returned. He came leading a horse laden with several sacks, followed by a sullen, silent little man who supervised the firing of the oven and then sat down to mix up and knead several loaves by its fitful light. Rain fell, first lightly and then in torrents; as the oven heated, steam rose from the stones and mixed with the general humidity. Charlie was given the task of stoking the flames. The heat was disagreeable and the rain was too persistent to ever allow the flames to dry him. Finally the cook pushed him aside and shoved half a dozen loaves into the granite maw, and the slab that served as a door was wrestled into place. As soon as the first faint smell of cooking bread pervaded the night, the captain told the cook to return to camp before he was missed. The man stalked angrily away, obviously wishing he’d been invited to join the meal. The horse went with him.
There was no other focus for their evening now but the oven and the loaves within it. The four stood around the radiant crypt, Charlie feeling mildly proud of the accomplishment, thinking it a neat trick that might be repeated for the benefit of the Patriot Army, if he ever happened to rejoin his regiment, and if circumstances were ever dire enough to require it.
“You can stop slavering,” the captain admonished him. “None of those loaves will be wasted on a prisoner of war. We’ve retained some crusts for that purpose.”
“I wouldn’t want it anyway,” Charlie forced himself to say, although he was sorely disappointed by this inevitable news. “That’s dead man’s bread. It’s probably cursed.”
“Superstitious lout,” the captain said. “Well, suit yourself, as necessity would have it.” He drew a few crusts out of his coat pocket. “Here, these have served me well during the campaign. They were probably baked the day before your cowardly Washington fled across the river.”
At that, Charlie could restrain himself no longer. He had no rationality to hold him in check, and little enough reason to live in any case. He struck the crumbs from the captain’s palm and, in continuance of the same gesture, threw his hands around the officer’s neck. As Charlie throttled him, a feeling of satisfaction filled him. Even as the captain choked and sputtered, Charlie knew that Parkes was creeping up behind him.
He heard the click of a musket lock, but he didn’t care. The barrel poked him in the kidney.
“Release him!” Parkes hissed.
Thunder and lightning crashed and blazed in the same instant. The captain’s eyes looked like wet marble, bulging but not yet sightless; there was still a strong fire of triumph in them.
“Go ahead, Parkes,” Charlie said over his shoulder. “Kill me.”
“Parkes!” the captain croaked.
The hammer hit the pan with a dull sound. Nothing. Rain must have soaked the powder. Charlie laughed miserably and thrust the captain away from him. He was outnumbered by an army.
The captain stood rubbing his throat, glaring at Charlie in the orange glow. His hand trembled on the hilt of his sword. Parkes cursed the useless musket, then threw it aside and strode to the oven.
“Bread must be ready,” he said. “Can’t let it burn, can we?” The captain glared at Charlie a moment longer, then let go of his sword and gestured at the oven. “Get it out then,” he said.
“After we eat, this prisoner goes to the camp. I’ve been treating him too carelessly. He may have military secrets that would be some use to us. I’ll see if we can’t arrange for Indians to draw them out of it.” He smiled at Charlie. “They’re excellent torturers, you know.”
Parkes urged Wolfgang to open the oven. The German wrapped his hands in his thick blue coat, then shoved the heavy door aside. It fell sizzling on the grass. A blaze of heat rushed out at them, seeming to glitter for a moment like the starry flecks that Charlie had seen in the inscriptions. The loaves were golden, perfect. He swallowed his saliva and sank back, turning away from the torment of sight and smell.
“Watch him, Parkes,” the captain said.
“Aye, sir. No foolish moves, boy, or we’ll have an entire army down on you.”
Wolfgang stooped into the oven and batted out one loaf, two, catching them in the folds of his coat. These were delivered to Parkes, who seemed unable to wait for them to cool. The rain had abated, so he swept the top of one of the untouched granite crypts and set the loaves down. Soon the oven was empty. Charlie refused to look at the bread; instead his eyes were drawn to the melting air inside the kiln. The lower slab was the one with inscriptions on it. The heat seemed to gather where the darkness had been before, glowing out of the lines and letters, sketching them on his eyes. Even when he looked away, into the dark woods, he could see them burning there. In fact, they seemed to continue to grow, looping out in bright extensions of the carved vines, threading through the shadowy trees, tangling everything in fire.
Parkes sighed. “The smell is heavenly. I can’t wait any longer, Captain.”
“It’s your own tongue you’ll burn. Go ahead.”
Parkes lifted a loaf to his mouth and tore off a bite that should have suffocated him. He chewed it happily, and when he opened his mouth, steam escaped, even in the warm air.
“Delicious, captain,” he gasped. “I commend it to your appetite.”
“Ah.” The captain took up a second loaf and ripped off a handful, chewed slowly and thoughtfully, glancing sidelong at Charlie. “Like a piece, boy?” he said through his food. “I bet you would. It’s good bread. The best I’ve eaten. A growing boy needs good fare like this. But a rebel like you deserves only to waste away. You might as well watch me eat, boy. It’s the closest you’ll get to a meal tonight.”
“What about you, Wolfgang?” Parkes said. “You worked hard, you must be hungry. Go ahead.”
The German was crouching by the stove. Now he rose and retrieved two loaves.
“Ah,” said Parkes, “I knew you must be ravenous. A big fellow like you.”
But with a swift double-gesture, Wolfgang tossed one loaf to Charlie and raised his carbine with the now-free hand, aiming it at the captain.
“Damn you!” the captain cried, struggling to his feet. “I knew you were trouble from the first. You’re a criminal, aren’t you? Faced with imprisonment or military service, eh? Well, you’ll be rotting in a cell before this war is over—that, or rotting in the earth.”
“If so, I wouldn’t be the first criminal turned soldier…captain.”
These words from the German were utterly shocking to Charlie, who sat with the hot loaf of bread clenched in both hands, not yet daring to eat. Shocking because they were delivered with a clear English accent.
Charlie was not the only one surprised by the German’s speech. The captain sputtered and turned to look one way, then the other. At last he faced Wolfgang again. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that you’re a murderer.”
“If you call killing in battle murder, then I suppose I am.”
Wolfgang smirked. “What would you call killing a defenseless girl? Valor?”
“Who are you?” the captain said.
“I am justice, your nemesis, sealer of your fate. I entered that room after you’d left it. I found my sister dead. No one would have believed me had I accused an officer of such a crime, and you were sailing the next day. I thought that if I followed you, I might someday have a chance to avenge her far from the English courts, which would only protect someone of your class. I sailed as a mate on a ship of the line, and once here it was easy enough to steal a blue coat. Even easier to get you to take me on. You’re so eager for slaves, you’d accept any story.”
“He’s mad, Parkes,” the captain said.
“If so, the rape and murder of my sister drove me mad.”
“That’s right, you’re mad,” Parkes chattered. “You think you have the upper hand, but that gun is useless, as you should know, in all this damp.”
Wolfgang shook his head. “The Indians have a way of keeping the powder dry. I learned it.”
“He’s bluffing,” said the captain.
“You’re welcome to see for yourself.”
No one moved. Wolfgang settled down, carbine fixed on the captain, propped on his knee. He nodded at Charlie.
“Eat,” he said. “I’ll do nothing else until you’ve eaten.”
Charlie looked down at the cooling loaf in his hands. It was flaky, baked hard on the outside, but soft within. He turned it over, and saw something that gave him pause.
On the underside of the loaf, strange designs had been baked into the bread in bas relief. He saw part of a five-pointed star, a few curls of twisting vine, a stylized eye. They’d been imprinted on the bread by the oven floor.
He pushed the loaf away from him. To eat it would have been like supping on the dead.
“I can’t,” he said. “It’s wrong.”
Wolfgang’s eyes narrowed. “What is?”
In that instant, the captain threw himself at Wolfgang. The carbine fired. Parkes screamed, leapt up, staggered backward into a tree with his hand clapped over his eye and blood leaking through his fingers; he slumped and made no further sound. The gun fell spent and useless to the ground.
Charlie jumped to his feet and rushed toward the two struggling men. He tried to lift the stone door of the oven, thinking he could crush the man’s skull, but it seared the skin from his fingers, as though only that moment removed from the flames. He whirled to see that the captain, besides his sword, was armed with a dagger. Its tip lay at Wolfgang’s neck, just about to dig in.
“Please!” Charlie screamed. He didn’t know who he was begging.
But a transformation came over the captain, at first indistinguishable from rage. His eyes widened, his mouth gaped, the dagger dropped from his fingers. Releasing Wolfgang, he dropped back into the grass, probing at his flesh with trembling hands.
While Charlie and Wolfgang stared, tiny lines of blackness snaked out of the captain’s mouth, like bloodworms or swift growing vines; they swiftly veiled his face. Deep incisions appeared in his flesh, as though hot, invisible brands were pressing into him. The symbols were all too familiar to Charlie: stars and eyes and triangles, and everywhere those gripping tendrils. They glowed with a fire-flecked blackness. The captain screamed, once with all his voice, then a second time, when his throat was choked. A black growth filled it. He writhed as though caught in a net, but the net was inside him and nowhere else.
He staggered to his feet, turning blindly to run. His fatal plunge carried him straight into the mouth of the oven.
Charlie gasped and moved away from the sudden smell of burning flesh. Wolfgang bent to the granite slab that served as an oven door. Scarcely seeming to feel the heat that had fused Charlie’s fingertips mere seconds before, he forced the door into place, sealing the sayories to bake in the oven. Then he too moved away, toward the trees. At the last moment before vanishing into the dark, he turned back toward Charlie.
“I know where to find a boat,” he said. “I’ll bring you along, if you’ll show me how to find General Washington. I wish to join the American army, if they’ll take me.”
“Oh, they’ll take you,” Charlie said. “We need more men like you.”
In the oven, fat sizzled and spat.
* * *
“Loaves From Hell” copyright 2011 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Weird Fiction Review, Vol. 1 (2011), edited by S.T. Joshi.
Published in 2011, this was actually written in the late ’80s, around the same time as “His Powder’d Wig, His Crowne of Thornes,” when we lived on Long Island for close to a year and, surrounded by survivals of the past in a way that had never been the case in Southern California, I fell in love with Colonial history. I’m afraid that the version which appeared at WFR was riddled with scan errors, indicating that it was printed without having been checked by any human eye. OCR software seems to be a lot better these days, but if you catch any errors, feel free to drop me a line.