A Supernatural Story
The story of Epinetus Birdsall has been fragmentarily written in several official books. That is typical of those who do not write of themselves. Others write their stories for them in such documents as the United States Census, the Chenango American newspaper, the records of the county poor farm and a variety of town, county and state histories. The story you are about to read is what I know and have surmised about Epinetus.
Henry Birdsall, Epinetus’ grandfather, moved his family from the New York/Connecticut border to a beautiful piece of land in the township of Greene, New York. The year was 1814 and the wagon trip via the half-finished Susquehanna Turnpike was miserable. The trip took three weeks and two fingers from the left hand of his oldest son. His grandson, Epinetus was not yet born. Henry was accompanied on this move by two sons, Henry Jr. (with eight fingers remaining) and Horace (who was more artistic than physical), several daughters, and his wife, Abashaby.
Henry’s family cleared their river flat along the banks of the Chenango River. The upland part of their parcel remained virgin forest except for a few oaks which Henry had selected as beams for the home and barn. They were a Quaker family and lived by their own culture. One other family lived within walking distance from them; the Abram Storms. Abram had moved into this newly opened “Indian Territory” a few years previous. Although Abram was not a Quaker, he and Henry formed an immediate bond.
In the following ten years they were joined by two other families; that of Jean Guilliame de Besse and that of Dewey David. Jean Guilliame de Besse was a well educated man from France who had spent his youth in Spain and a few intermediate years as an international shipper. After several episodes of being pirated de Besse had lost his business and his fortune. He settled on the banks of the Chenango with his books, his wife, his beautiful daughter, and a deep love for trapping and fishing. Dewey David seemed more intent on building a fortune as a farmer. David’s namesake son, Dewey D. David, was the workhorse that the elder David used to reach his ambitions. Young David never had a childhood to enjoy.
Horace Birdsall married Triphosia and had a daughter and one son; Epinetus. The Chenango Canal was built in the early 1830’s when Epinetus was about ten years old. The canal cut through the properties of all four families. The elder David saw the canal as another method of making money. Henry Birdsall saw it as an intrusion upon his culture and his property. Henry’s vision was not disappointed. The canal-men brought vulgar language and habits with them. He was mortified to have his children exposed to this lack of decency.
David opened up his home (as a makeshift inn) to these men and the concubines that seemed to always be in tow. Young David was exposed to this raw part of humanity. Young Dewey David observed these faults of basic-man and they eventually formed a scab on his sensitivity. His childless past had already erased his ego. Young Dewey D. David’s only joy was wringing the necks of the passenger pigeons. His father made him net them in large numbers to be sold in Binghamton.
Epinetus was entering puberty when his Grandfather died. The Quaker culture of the Birdsalls had faded; some of it due to exposure to the canal people and the rest due to lack of strong-willed leadership.
Triphosia and Horace allowed a relative of Jean Guilliame de Besse to take Epinetus on a trip to New York City. It took a few days to make the trip up the canal to Utica. A subsequent short leg on the Erie Canal put them on the Hudson River. The next day they landed in New York. The de Besse relative had some business to tend to in the financial district.
The following Sunday (before leaving New York) the de Besse relative took Epinetus to visit a newly-built stone cathedral. A high mass was scheduled and the two sat quietly and listened to the beautiful organ music which was a prelude to the mass. The entrance hymn was played and Epinetus was entranced by the procession of the priests and alter servers. The mass continued through the readings and Gospel. As the communion was about to be served the organ master played Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Lachrymose.” The choir joined in and the music, step by step, reached a crescendo that Epinetus could never have imagined. Then the music suddenly dropped an octave in tone and a much slower pace. The music then picked up its tone and its volume; step by step until the crescendo seemed to reach an even higher point.
Epinetus had no idea what was happening to him and neither did the de Besse who was watching over him. Epinetus’ eyes rolled upward into his skull, he fainted and fell to the floor, smashing his forehead onto the oaken pew in front of him.
It was quite some time before anyone could waken Epinetus. They had carried him to the back of the cathedral and laid him on a Hudson-Bay blanket. When he awoke, a stained glass window with the impaled body of Jesus was staring down at him. Epinetus stayed motionless until he was able to gather his wits. The de Besse and a few of the congregation, once assured that Epinetus was over his spell, allowed him to get to his feet. Young Epinetus and the de Besse relative walked toward the dock. They were just in time to catch the boat for the first leg of their return trip.
Neither Epinetus nor the de Besse ever mentioned the fainting spell that occurred during the performance of the Lachrymose. There appeared no need to worry Epinetus’ parents about the single occurrence. Neither de Besse nor Epinetus realized the deep effect that the music had on his soul or his extra senses.
A few years passed before Epinetus was to hear the Lachrymose again. It was a beautiful fall day. Epinetus sat on an old log that lay in the dark woods at the top of the hill overlooking the family farm. He was entering manhood and as he sat there he wondered about the changes he was experiencing. The woods were calm and peaceful.
Epinetus did not realize that young Dewey D. David was also in the Birdsall woods; seeking to kill whatever wildlife he could. The pigeons were not migrating and young David had no necks to twist and break. But he did spot Epinetus sitting on the log and was anxious to shoot at something. David decided that Epinetus would suffice for this urge.
As David stealthily stalked him, Epinetus was unaware of it. Suddenly Epinetus experienced a very strange feeling. Then, oddly enough he heard, as clearly as if he were in the New York City cathedral, the organ playing the Lachrymose, as well as the choir accompanying it. Note by note the music reached its crescendo. The volume of the choir and organ increased in lock-step with the ascending music. Then – – – that dreadful pause that Mozart had placed on mankind – – – followed by a lowering of the tone and the timing; only to repeat the triple crescendo of timing, tone and volume once more.
Epinetus’ eyes rolled back into his head as he experienced the Lachrymose for the second time. He neither heard the “crack” of David’s rifle nor felt the pain of the rifle ball that tore a hole in his scalp. Epinetus awoke at dusk. His hair was matted in blood and dead leaves were glued to it. He was able to get to his feet and make his way down the hill. As he approached the family compound he could hear his family calling for him. Luckily the ball grazed his skull and he would survive. His blood-soaked shirt belied the physical damage done to him. It did not lie about the psychological damage.
The truth never emerged about what young David had done to Epinetus. However, over the years people assumed what they believed to be the truth. David’s reputation was born out of known facts. He was involved in several horrible acts of violence that had occurred in 1849 when he rushed to California seeking a fortune in gold. This was followed by the murder of his wife and brother-in-law upon his return to the township of Greene. David saved Chenango County the cost of a murder trial by killing himself.
Epinetus carried on his life encumbered by his experiences and the unexplainable reoccurrence of the Lachrymose. The Birdsall compound was his refuge and he never wandered far from it. It was four years since he had been shot.
One late winter day he heard a deep growling noise coming from the river. He left the barnyard and walked over a small knoll to where he could observe the water. There was no water to be seen. The Chenango River was covered with thick blocks of ice that had broken lose upstream and floated down. This occurred due to an early thaw. Mixed in with the ice were several large trees that had been ripped from the river bank. The ice blocks churned and ripped at the trees. This is what had caused the growling noises that Epinetus had heard. He watched for a long time, mesmerized by the force of the water and ice.
That night the members of the Birdsall family took turns watching the river. The ice had created a dam and this caused the river to rise; threatening their homes. In the morning the river level stabilized and slowly fell. The thaw ended as fast as it started and the river ice froze in place. The trees were captured in the forceful grip of ice.
Later that week Epinetus walked down to the rivers edge to inspect his boat. He had forgotten about it and started to worry that the large ice blocks may have damaged it. Luckily it had been pulled high enough up the river bank and the ice had not reached it. This boat was Epinetus’ connection to the Terwilliger family who lived across the river. He had not seen his boyhood friend, Peter, since the beginning of winter. Epinetus returned to his home and told his father, Horace, that he was going to cross the river-ice and visit Peter. Although his father was anxious about the ice he was happy to hear that Epinetus wanted to get outdoors and away from the family compound. He agreed to Epinetus’ wish on the condition that they checked out the strength of the ice together.
Horace hung on to one of the trapped trees as he tested the ice close to shore. The ice was frozen solid. He directed Epinetus to hang on to the branches of the trees as he walked across the river. Epinetus was smiling from ear to ear; as only a young man would when on an adventure. He was about ten feet from shore when he heard those fearful and dreaded notes of the Lachrymose. A loud groan escaped from the ice beneath his feet. The whole river shook and moved at the same time. The ice dam was breaking up.
Horace yelled to Epinetus “come back” but it was too late. Epinetus’ spell of the Lachrymose had overtaken him. He had fallen down. The ice started tumbling in various parts of the river. The piece under Epinetus revolved, ever so slowly, and trapped his legs against the tree. Epinetus’ coat snagged on a branch and it kept him from being dragged under. Even in his semi-conscious state Epinetus could still hear Mozart’s black music rising in tone, volume and beat. The choir voices seemed clearer than ever. The music blocked out the pain of ice tearing at his legs. And then that dreadful pause that the genius Mozart had injected occurred once more. Again the voices and organ dropped and restarted, deeper than before. Strangely the escalation of volume and beat that brought the music from darkness had transformed it to a glorious and beautiful height.
Horace realized his son could not help himself. Leaping onto the tree he quickly worked his way out to where Epinetus was trapped between the branches and the ice. The father grabbed his son by the belt and yanked his legs free from the ice that gnawed at his son’s flesh. Once Horace had the coat free from the branch he was able to balance himself on the tree trunk and drag Epinetus back to shore.
The blood from Epinetus’ legs dripped from the tips of his shoes as Horace carried him toward the house. Horace normally did not have the strength for such a task but found a reserve as he half-ran, half-stumbled on the pathway. The crimson trail of fresh blood on the snow went unnoticed until later in the day.
Epinetus suffered no broken bones but had several deep gashes on his legs. One kneecap was exposed. Grandmother Abashaby and his mother Triphosia tended to the wounds with herbal compresses and boiled linen rags. It was early spring before Epinetus was able to walk in the fields and woods again.
Over the years Epinetus had several other brushes with death and each time they were immediately preceded by the dark yet glorious Lachrymose. Epinetus never talked about the phenomena with anyone; not even his parents. The years passed and Epinetus’ physical health had deteriorated from these near-death traumatic experiences. His mental acuteness remained but he became overly fearful.
That particular branch of the Birdsall family eventually dissipated due to the lack of males to carry on the name. Epinetus’ aunts moved to other villages and he could not care for himself. The Chenango County home for the indigent (Preston Manor) took Epinetus into its care in the late 1880’s.
One winter day Epinetus was sitting in the great room of “The Manor” when an aid came in to tell him that he had a visitor. Epinetus was pleased when he saw that it was the same Mr. de Besse who had taken him to New York City fifty years ago. They talked for some time before the subject of the cathedral came up. It was Epinetus who raised the subject.
“Do you remember that time when we went to New York City and I passed out in the cathedral?” asked Epinetus.
“Yes I do” responded de Besse. “Even though you were the one who passed out that was the strangest experience I ever had.” Continuing on he said “When they played that song, which I later determined was Mozart’s ‘Lachrymose’, I felt myself becoming very weak. I still think it strange.”
“Well, Mr. de Besse, you will think it even stranger when I tell you my story” responded Epinetus.
And with that Epinetus launched into the lengthy tales of his experiences and the Lachrymose. He related the Dewey D. David story, the experience when caught in the ice flow and several other similar experiences that I was also privaleged to hear. However, I simply keep them to myself because they are too dreadful to repeat here.
Mr. de Besse kept an eye on the large grandfather clock that stood in the corner. He was mesmerized by the Epinetus’ stories but he knew it would be getting dark in a few hours. The clouds foretold of snow and de Besse had a long trip home to Berkshire. His horses and carriage were in excellent shape but the darkness and snow would double the time his trip would take.
“Mr. de Besse, would you have a cigarette that you could give me?” asked Epinetus.
“Yes. Of course” replied de Besse. “Let us go out on the back porch to smoke. We may bother others” lied de Besse. His real reason to move to the outdoors was for a breath of fresh air. Preston Manor had a large population of people with incontinence problems. De Besse was concerned that he might not be able to stomach the odor when mixed with the smoke.
“Thank you” said Epinetus as he rose from his chair. He led de Besse through a hallway to the back door. When they had reached the outdoors de Besse removed a silver cigarette case from an inner coat pocket. He opened it and held it out in an offer for Epinetus to take one. Epinetus did so and de Besse took one for himself. De Besse fumbled for a match in a compartment on the side of the cigarette case. He finally removed one and struck it on the side of the metal case. The flame lit up Epinetus’ face. At that very moment both men heard the first strains of the Lachrymose. De Besse saw the fear in Epinetus’ eyes. Epinetus reached out to hang on to de Besse’s coat for support. Both men lost their footing on the ice that covered the top step.
The music played while they hung on to each other and, as if in slow motion, they spun a full half-circle. Their feet seemed to dance as they sought firm footing. Slowly the two men went down together, elbows smashing on the flagstone steps, then their heads bouncing off the sharp corners. Slowly the music played; then sped up note by note until it reached that Mozartian glory, accompanied by the cathedral choir.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs the bright red blood spread out over the ice coating. De Besse’s head was cracked open and gray matter was exposed. Epinetus had blood streaming from his ears and nose, one arm twisted grotesquely under his body. Their music continued for two more refrains and ended only when their hearts, in unison, stopped beating.
I had been watching them from the window of the great room as they had departed for a cigarette. They were discovered some hours later; after darkness had fallen. It was only then that I arose from my chair and went to my room. The music was too beautiful. I could not leave any sooner.
© Copyright – Waldo Tomosky