Synopsis: My latest story is a dark and eerie one, conveniently ready just in time for Halloween! A fascination in psychology, folk tales, history, and the culture of my home state of Minnesota inspired me to write this story. Oh yes, and also a latent interest in black magic and witchcraft!
Ex-felon, Henry Schmidt, is doing his best to get his life back on track since his release from prison. He’s got a new job working in the Northern Minnesota iron mines and has been caring for his only remaining relative, Grandpa Franz. It hasn’t been easy. Grandpa Franz is nearly 100 and his mind is assailed by a combination of Alzheimer’s and a life-long struggle with PTSD, which has persisted since his deployment to the European Front in World War II. All of this changes for the better once Grandpa Franz starts taking a miraculous new experimental medicine that seems to return him to his healthy, stable old self. That is, until one morning Henry finds that Grandpa Franz has set up a mysterious ritualistic altar on the kitchen table in his sleep. Henry looks to his fascination in psychology he developed while reading books in prison to try to explain his grandpa’s strange new behavior, but the local reverend has a different explanation. It’s a bizarre, haunting explanation that will leave Henry skeptical, confounded, and disturbed.
Side Effects Include Sleepwalking and Practicing Witchcraft
By Marshall Geck
I’ll never forget the first morning we learned that Grandpa Franz’s new medicine was making him practice witchcraft in his sleep.
It was a cold Saturday morning in January. The forests around our house had accumulated a fresh layer of snow overnight. The sky was that distinct deep blue you see just before dawn during winters up north. For someone who had to clock in at the iron mines every weekday at a time of morning when everything was still coal black, waking up to any light was as good as sleeping in.
I pulled myself out of bed, put on my robe, and groggily sauntered out the front door into the frigid air to pick up the newspaper. I came back inside to the warmth of the house, shivering, and made my way to the kitchen to prepare my morning coffee.
What I saw there woke me up more than coffee ever could.
Grandpa Franz sat at the kitchen table in his blue pajamas. His eyes were closed and his head hung over the back of his chair, mouth gaping open and drool dripping all the way from his chin down to the scar that ran along his throat. His white hair was disheveled, the rosary around his neck dangled by his side, and his loose, liver-spotted skin was frightfully pale.
I nearly fell over from the shock. Was he—I couldn’t bear the thought—could he possibly be…dead? A bolt of terror shot through me. A moment later, an eruption of snores quickly put this fear to rest.
Nearly as alarming as finding him passed out in a chair was the assortment of items on the table in front of him. I turned on the kitchen light and stepped closer to get a better look.
It was the most bizarre ensemble I had ever seen. In the center were pieces of silverware eerily arranged in the form of a five-pointed star. The star was enclosed by a circle of black pepper sprinkled on the table. Four candles sat at even intervals around the circumference of this circle. Black wicks and runny wax told me they had been burning for some time. Between the candles were bowls, each containing something different: a little pool of water, a small box of matches, some dirt resembling the soil from our house plants, and white feathers I quickly recognized to be from our couch pillows. Capping off the entire scene was a decorative skull my mom had bought me during a trip to Mexico as a child.
I was dumbfounded, curious, and concerned all at once. Was Grandpa Franz ill? Had something caused him to go mad and set all this up? Was he trying to communicate something? Or was this arrangement of stuff meaningless?
I put my hand on his shoulder and gave him a gentle shake.
“Grandpa Franz, wake up.”
He snorted, smacked his lips, and slowly peeled back his eyelids. His pale blue eyes surveyed his surroundings. When nothing registered, they went wide with horror. I knew this face. He was about to have a panic attack. Just as I was about to lean forward and calm him, he suddenly resumed his composure, furrowed his brow, and looked up at me questioningly. How he managed to recover so quickly from an onset that looked inevitable, I had no idea, but I didn’t have time to ponder it.
“Grandpa Franz, you okay? What are you doing passed out in the kitchen?”
“What are you talking about Henry?” he said through his croaking morning voice. “What time is it? What’s all this junk you’ve put here on the table?”
“I didn’t do this! It must have been you!” I was so stunned by his accusation that I couldn’t help laughing.
“I certainly didn’t! Why would I leave a bunch of crap on the table?”
“I don’t know, you tell me.”
“Well, I can’t tell you. I went to sleep in my bed last night and none of this was here then.”
“Okay, Grandpa Franz. So, if you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it, I guess someone broke into our house. They took you out of your bed, sat you on the kitchen chair, set up all this stuff, and then just left?”
“Henry, quit trying to confuse your old grandpa! My mind isn’t completely gone yet.” He rubbed his eyes and sat up in his chair. “Go make some coffee, will you?”
I sighed. Although baffled as ever, I knew that pushing him wouldn’t get me anywhere before he had his morning coffee. I gave him the newspaper, walked over to the kitchen counter, and prepared the drip machine.
While he read the paper and the coffee brewed, I grabbed my little wire-bound notebook and wrote down how I had found him. It was easily the strangest chapter in an otherwise overwhelmingly positive story.
Just as I was about to bring up the topic again, there was a knock at the front door. I poured his coffee, handed him his mug, and went to answer it.
Grandpa Franz’s psychiatrist, Sally, stood on our doorstep. Her head was covered by the fuzzy-rimmed hood of her thick purple parka. Frozen white breath emanated from her face.
“Good morning, Henry! I was helping set up the winter banquet at the church. Instead of going all the way home on the other side of Ely, I thought I’d take a chance that you and Grandpa would be up already. Looks like I was right! I hope you don’t mind that I’m earlier than usual?”
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “Come in.”
“Thanks, darling. Uff da, it’s cold! I tell you, January is the reason Minnesota doesn’t have a population of 10 million!” She stepped into the foyer and slid out of her parka. I hung it up in the coat closet while she let herself into the kitchen.
“Morning, Franz!” she said as she entered. “I see I caught you and Henry in your jammies. That’s okay, you’ll just be extra comfortable during today’s session.”
Grandpa Franz looked up from his paper. The consternation that came over his sky-blue eyes signaled that the gears in his head were turning. He studied every wrinkle on her face, every orangish-grey dyed hair on her head, and every patch of purple in her outfit, all in search of something—anything—to remind himself who she was. I was certain he wouldn’t recognize her, until suddenly he put down his mug and exclaimed:
“Sally! Praise the lord, you look fresh as ever! Is it Saturday already?”
“Yes, Franz. The time flies, doesn’t it?”
“You’re telling me. The older I get, the more it all blends together. If I wasn’t nearly a hundred, I might ask if I could go back to work in the mines again, just to mix things up.”
Sally chuckled and put her hands on her hips like a mother amused by a silly thing her child said. It wasn’t long before her mascara-lined eyes were drawn to the cluster of items on the table. She cocked her head in curiosity.
“What’s all this stuff?”
“Grandpa Franz put it there last night,” I said before he could respond.
“Darn it, Henrik Schmidt. I didn’t! You did!”
I rolled my eyes. Sally studied each of us with a look that was equal parts confusion and suspicion.
“You two are silly,” she said. “Well, never mind, let’s have our session on the other side of the table. Henry, would you please pour me a cup of coffee? Milk and a little bit of sugar.”
I poured her a mug from the carafe and left the two of them to their cognitive behavioral therapy session.
I sat down in the La-Z Boy chair in the living room with my own coffee mug and my feet on the ottoman. The room was now doused in soft morning light as the sun’s rays found their way across the dense birch and pine forests outside and through our living room windows. Had I not been so confounded by the scene I had just woken up to, it would have made for a pleasant place to kick back for the morning. But instead of relaxing in the morning glow, I dug into my latest psychology book. I read eagerly but aimlessly, hoping I would stumble on some answers to my questions about Grandpa Franz’s strange behavior.
I was so immersed in the book that I completely lost track of time and was surprised when Grandpa Franz shuffled into the room and announced his session was over.
“And she wants to talk to you,” he added. “I’m going for a shower.”
I closed my book and went back into the kitchen, where Sally’s plump purple figure sat at the end of the table opposite from Grandpa Franz’s new collection. A sudden awkwardness found its way into my step as I realized I was still my robe, despite having had over an hour to change. But her smile assured me she didn’t mind. I pulled up a chair across from her and set my coffee mug and book down on the table.
“Understanding the Human Mind and Why Some People Lose It,” she read the title aloud. “Another psychology book? Well, I’ve never heard of that one, but I obviously couldn’t approve more of the topic.”
“It’s a remnant from prison,” I said. “You either read, or you go insane spending years staring at the walls. For whatever reason, they had more psychology books in the prison library than anything else. Probably because so many…interesting psychological subjects end up there.”
“I’ll bet. Have you learned anything interesting from this book?”
“Apparently there’s a growing body of research that shows coffee consumption can lead to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. I guess it wasn’t enough to save Grandpa Franz.”
Sally smiled and sipped her coffee mug, leaving a purple tread of lipstick behind.
“Yes, if only! Although to his credit, there aren’t many people that make it to their late 90’s without going mentally downhill in some way or another. So, who knows? Maybe his coffee obsession held off the worst of it! And anyway, from what I can see the new medicine seems to be helping a lot. Do you think so, too?”
“Yeah, it’s incredible. He’s not as forgetful as he used to be. At one point he seemed to think he was meeting Irene for the first time every day she came. Now it’s rare if he doesn’t recognize her.”
“Irene is his caretaker during the week while you’re at the mines?”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “And my conversations with him are much, much better. He can keep his focus. He’s not as confused, and he doesn’t ask me the same question over and over again. It’s almost like having the old Grandpa Franz back.”
“That’s terrific!” Sally grinned and held her coffee mug with two hands like a giddy little girl. “And have you noticed if it has had any effect on his PTSD?”
I pursed my lips.
“Well, obviously I try my hardest not to do anything that would trigger that. But there have been a few things to suggest that it might be helping. I can’t say for sure though.”
“Okay, at least it’s not getting worse. Are you documenting all of this?”
“In my notebook, all the time,” I said, pulling my little notebook out from my robe pocket to show her. “It feels good. Like I’m contributing to a new medicine that will eventually help other people with the disease.”
“That’s true. Documentation is so important for experimental medicine. Keep it up.” She turned her gaze to the jumble of items on the other side of the table and pointed. “So, what’s the deal with all this stuff?”
“I have no idea. Grandpa Franz must have put it there in his sleep last night because he insists he didn’t do it.”
“And you didn’t see him do it?”
“No. He must have done it in the early morning hours. It wasn’t here when I got home around midnight and went up to bed.”
“What were you doing that kept you up so late?”
“Just at a house party thrown by someone I used to know in high school.”
“You weren’t doing drugs there, were you?” Sally’s voice lowered and she narrowed her eyes into an intense glare, cracking the skin-colored makeup where the crow’s feet formed around her eyes.
“I’ve been sober since I got out, thanks,” I said testily, annoyed by the sudden challenge.
“Good. Keep it that way.” She resumed her affable smile as quickly as it left. “So, you’ve been getting out and reconnecting with friends then?”
I shifted in my seat, irritated by her probing. “Sort of.”
“What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”
“You’re here to treat Grandpa Franz,” I said flatly, squeezing my agitation into my coffee mug. “Not me.”
“Yes, but your well-being and his are closely linked. And even if I wasn’t here for professional reasons, I’d still be interested, as a friend of the family since you were a baby, to know how you’re doing.”
I stared at her in silence for a moment. It was a forceful, penetrating stare intended to make her feel awkward and back off. But she simply returned the maneuver with her chocolate-colored eyes locked on mine.
“Look, you don’t have to open up if you don’t want to, but I have a feeling it hasn’t been easy for you,” she said. “And I also have a feeling that you’re not going to do yourself any favors by keeping it all bottled up inside.”
I gazed out the window, torn between resenting her intrusiveness and acknowledging that she was probably right. I opened my mouth and spoke, low and robotically: “I guess I had this fantasy that I would just pick up where I left off when I got out, kind of like making up for lost time. But a lot of my old high school friends have either moved to the Twin Cities or hidden themselves away with a family. So, reconnecting isn’t really an option. Anyone else I meet isn’t exactly thrilled to be friends with an ex-felon.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“Depressed,” I said, my gaze still out the window. “I can be having a great conversation with someone, but as soon as they find out where I spent my 20’s, they’ll suddenly get all nervous and hesitant. It’s as if they think I’m a maniac about to murder them where they stand. I feel like the world will never let me forget what I did, even though I’ve done my time. I’d probably feel even more alone if Grandpa Franz didn’t require so much care. Between him and working in the mines, I have enough distractions.”
“Sometimes a disease can be a blessing in disguise like that.” She nodded slowly and looked at me with empathetic eyes. “How are you enjoying the mines then?”
I shrugged. “It’s honest work. They have me driving the taconite to the ore separating plants in those giant dump trucks.”
“I’ve seen those; they’re as big as a house!”
“Yeah. Although now that I’ve gotten used to them, all the pickup trucks I see around Ely look so small to me.”
Sally laughed, which compelled a smirk to my mouth, releasing the tension from the interview.
“You’re funny. Well, consider yourself lucky. Not everyone finds a good job straight out of prison. You should be thankful that Grandpa Franz still knows the folks over at the mines and could get you set up there. I’m sure your parents would have been proud to see you following in the family’s footsteps. You look so much like them these days! I like you clean shaven and your hair short like that. It’s much more grown up than the Fidel Castro beard and man bun. And you got rid of your eyebrow piercings too!”
I nodded slowly, rubbing my hands together under the unsettling weight of her analyzing eyes. I stared vacantly at the blue, red, and black tattoos on my arms swaying back and forth. They reminded me that there were aspects of my former wayward self that wouldn’t be rectified as quickly as my hair and eyebrows.
“Well, I won’t embarrass you much longer,” Sally said, sensing she was making me self-conscious. “We can leave it there for today. Thank you for the coffee.”
She stood up and tipped her mug towards me to show that it was empty. It contained several new lipstick streaks.
“And just keep an eye on all of this, okay?” she waved her hand over Grandpa Franz’s collection of junk. “Let me know if it happens again.”
I nodded, stood up, and walked her to the foyer.
“What are you and Grandpa going to do today?” she asked as she slipped on her parka.
“I’m not sure.”
“Why don’t you take him ice fishing? It’s finally clear out, and he used to love a day on the ice. It would be a good way for you two to spend some time together.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, though I felt more like spending the day reading and watching football after a hard week at the mines.
“Do it, Henry. You have your whole life to watch football, but you won’t have Grandpa Franz forever,” she said, somehow reading my mind.
“Bye, Sally.” I opened the door, the impatience creeping into my voice as the Arctic air enveloped us.
“Bye, darling. See you at the banquet tomorrow.” She put her arm around the back of my neck and pulled me in for a soggy purple kiss on the cheek.
I closed the door and stood there in my robe, watching her waddle away in the snow through the peep hole. She squeezed into her little purple car, did a three-point turn, and then disappeared behind the trees at the first bend of our unshoveled white driveway.
I continued gazing outside for a moment. The sun shone bright and seemed to make the entire landscape glisten. The sky was a crisp, clear blue, a welcome change after a miserably overcast week. The pines and birch trees were covered in snow, forming an enticing white wilderness where usually a dark and foreboding forest stood.
It really was a good day for ice fishing.
Just as I was about to walk away from the door, a familiar black car came around the bend and rolled up through Sally’s track marks to our house. My jaw tightened, my eyes narrowed, and a bitter liquid rushed into my bloodstream.
I turned around, stomped into the living room, and sat back down on the La-Z Boy chair. I propped my legs on the ottoman and thrust my book into my face.
The doorbell rang once. I ignored it. The doorbell rang twice. I ignored it.
“Henry, there’s someone at the door!” Grandpa Franz yelled from the bathroom.
I said nothing and continued reading my book. The doorbell rang again.
“Henry! What’s wrong with you? Can’t you hear there’s someone at the door?” Grandpa Franz shuffled into the room, his white hair wet and combed back. I raised the book to completely cover my face.
“You’re useless,” he said, throwing up his hands in annoyance. “I’m coming!”
He lumbered toward the foyer and opened the front door. Cold air poured into the house again, making the hair on my neck stand up.
“Hello, Franz! How are you today? I just finished setting up the winter banquet with the volunteers and thought I’d drop by to remind you about it on my way home.”
The greeting was not returned. A long pause ensued. Anyone with a healthy brain would have regarded this silence as awkward or impolite, but I knew Grandpa Franz was just struggling to recognize the man at the door. I sure as hell wasn’t going to help him.
Finally, he responded. “Peace be with you, Father! Please come in, you must be freezing.”
“And also with you,” the reverend returned the greeting. I heard him step into the house and shut the door. “Indeed, it’s frigid out today! By the way, was that Sally Clemens I saw pulling out of your driveway?”
“She’s the one,” Grandpa Franz said. “Today was our Saturday treatment. I’m on a new medicine, ya know?”
“Ah, the Schmidt house is a popular place to be today! I didn’t know you were on a new medicine. I’ve been praying for a cure for you.”
“Well, this is the closest one to a cure yet!” Grandpa Franz said with enthusiasm. “So, thank you Father!”
“Praise be to God. Hello, Henrik! Reading in your robe this morning, are we?”
The book had prevented me from realizing the reverend was now standing right over my chair. I glared at him over the top of it. He was dressed in his penguin suit of all black with a white collar. He took off his fedora. What was left of his greasy grey hair sat perilously combed over his balding head. Thick, black-rimmed eyeglasses tried their best to hide the dark bags under his eyes. He smelled like he had been rolling in a pile of incense.
“How are you, my son?”
“You’re looking good these days. No more beard and ponytail! A much more respectable look. I’m just dropping by because the winter banquet at the church is tomorrow, and we wouldn’t want Grandpa Franz to forget.”
“I know, I heard you when you came in.”
“Did you also know that people stand up and greet each other when a guest arrives?”
“Never mind him, Father,” Grandpa Franz interjected. “Come into the kitchen and have a cup of coffee.”
“Thanks, I’d like that.” The reverend shook his head at me in disappointment.
I watched as the two of them walked into the kitchen. Grandpa Franz headed for the coffee maker on the counter, but the reverend suddenly stopped cold. The color rushed out of his face and his eyes widened. He stood there motionless and ashen grey, as if he had just seen a ghost.
“What’s all this on your table?” he whispered.
“Grandpa Franz put it there,” I yelled into the kitchen before he could answer.
“Henry’s just being a smart aleck,” Grandpa Franz said as he extended a coffee mug to the reverend. “It’s just a bunch of junk. Sit down, Father.”
The reverend continued to stare at the table in horror. Grandpa Franz tapped him on the sleeve with the mug, causing him to snap out of it. He looked around frantically for a moment, then closed his eyes, exhaled, and tried to collect himself. He accepted the mug hesitantly and the two of them sat down to the table.
I scratched my head curiously, intrigued by his reaction, but my interest swiftly dissipated once they started talking about God and the Bible and whatever else old Christians waste their breath on. Praying to a benevolent God to give people comfort and meaning was one thing, but convincing them that this gave them moral superiority over those who didn’t was what I couldn’t stand. I took some defiant pleasure in immersing myself in a book of science in the room adjacent to where wild stories that masqueraded as divine and unquestionable truths filled the air.
“Thank you, Father,” I heard Grandpa Franz say after about an hour. “I have faith in God’s plan for me. Right now, though, I think his plan for me is a nap.”
The reverend laughed, and they stood up from the table. They walked back into the living room and shook hands goodbye. Grandpa Franz disappeared into his bedroom, while the reverend started to put on his coat. For whatever reason, he seemed to be taking his time.
“Henrik, can I have a word with you?” he asked, once Grandpa Franz had shut his bedroom door.
“I’m kind of busy,” I said with my eyes fixed on my book.
“Those objects on your kitchen table. You’re sure Franz put them there like that?”
“He did it in his sleep and doesn’t remember.”
“You’re sure?” the reverend gasped.
“Yeah. I’m sure. Why do you care so much?” I said, putting down my book and looking up at him from my chair with a raised eyebrow.
“Because that’s an altar for satanic witchcraft. Your silverware with the pepper around it is in the form of a pentacle, a classic symbol of devil worship. Those candles and objects in the bowls—the dirt, matches, feathers, and water—they’re meant to invoke the elements of earth, fire, wind, and water. Witches bend these elements to their will to create a transitional space between God’s creation and the underworld.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Angered by his wild allegations, I jerked up from my chair and slammed my hands on the armrests.
“Please listen,” he begged. “That skull is an offering to the evil one when the witches establish their wicked portal. The devil is attracted to anything that resembles death and human suffering. Once they contact the demon and enter his good graces with this gift, a witch can harness his power for whatever black purposes they desire.”
“That’s absurd! Do you even know my Grandpa? He’s Ely’s number one God-fearing man. Where on earth would he learn witchcraft?”
The reverend frowned, closed his eyes, and muttered a prayer. He then crossed himself and opened his eyes again.
“You know what happened to him during the war, right?”
“A lot happened to him during the war.”
“You know he was captured by the Nazis, right?”
“And then he escaped.”
“Is that all you know?”
“It’s not something I can bring up casually,” I said heatedly, my blood pressure creeping further and further upward. “It’s off limits. I’m not looking to provoke a severe PTSD episode just for a few war stories.”
“Well, let me tell you that he actually escaped twice. You already know he escaped the Nazi prison. He pretended he was ill in the middle of the night and then used a bed sheet to strangle the guard that came to inspect him. He put on the dead man’s uniform and walked out of the compound as if he were one of the Germans. But it wasn’t long before the alarm system and search lights came on. He made a dash for the forest when he heard gunfire and screaming guards. At one point, he was grazed by a bullet. You know the scar on his neck?”
“How would you know any of this?” I asked with narrowed eyes. “He never talks about the war.”
“What I’m telling you came straight from his mouth during many painful divulgences in confession, my son. Lord only knows what else he experienced that he didn’t tell me.”
My fists tightened, my face burned, and my eyes went wide with fury. Whether or not the reverend was telling the truth became irrelevant to me. From the moment I was out of the womb until my parents were taken from me, they told me never to bring up the war with Grandpa Franz. My entire life, I had watched him sit through unsuccessful therapy session after unsuccessful therapy session. My choice was to either avoid putting him in situations that reminded him of the war, or spend my energy trying to calm him down from a panic attack.
And yet, here was the reverend, insisting he was intentionally provoking such traumatic episodes every time my ultra-pious Grandpa was compelled by his Christian teachings to enter the confession booth.
“So, you’ve been torturing him for years? Is that what you’re saying?” I said through clenched teeth.
“I’m one of the few people to whom he could confide these awful memories, my son,” he said in a pathetic attempt to feign humility. “And I implore you to listen to what I’m sharing with you now. His wellbeing may very well depend on it, as could yours.”
I said nothing and stared at him intensely. It was the same forceful, penetrating stare I had given Sally. I wanted to make my meaning clear: if he was telling me lies and stories, he better not proceed any further with his charade. But he continued undeterred.
“As I was saying, the bullet responsible for that distinctive scar on your Grandpa’s neck thankfully did not strike anything vital, but it still caused him to bleed heavily. A search party of Nazis and barking German Shepherds came after him, so he couldn’t stop and tend to his wound. The forest he had raced into was dense and black, and he feared he’d run into a tree or trip and break his leg at any moment. At some point, the loss of blood was too much, and he collapsed unconscious on the forest floor.”
I was increasingly aware that this was a remarkable amount of detail to simply make up on the spot.
“His nightmare was far from over when he came to,” the reverend continued. “He awoke in a damp stone basement, surrounded by tallow candles, flaming torches, dried herbs, pungent incense, rusty chalices, fearsome-looking blades, and bizarre amulets in all shapes and colors. Even more terrifying, he was tied to a circular wooden table with ropes made of horsehair. He told me that he was naked, aching, and dazed, but luckily the wound on his neck had somehow been stitched. Before he had time to get his bearings, a door creaked open and three people came down the stairs into the basement. Their faces were hidden by black veils, their skin covered in runic symbols, and they spoke a language that was neither German nor anything he had ever heard before.”
I raised my eyebrow at this bizarre turn of his story. Under any normal circumstances I would have declared it ludicrous and ended his fantastical sermon right there, but a smoldering intrigue stopped me. The gnawing possibility that the reverend could have been telling the truth and was revealing more about the war than Grandpa Franz had told me in my entire lifetime had sparked a latent desire to hear more. My breathing slowed and I listened intently as the reverend went on.
“The mysterious miscreants carried branches, each with a long handle on one end and a bushel of thorns on the other. They held these under a torch, lit them on fire, and then proceeded to beat Franz while shouting black incantations. He screamed out in agony as the flames singed his skin, but this only made them laugh and swing harder.
“They were witches, Henrik, performing satanic rituals on him. They kept him tied up in that basement for months. When he wasn’t being tortured with spells, incantations, and bodily inflictions, he was all alone in that damp, dark dungeon; scared, cold, and hungry. They fed him minimally and tended to his wounds, seemingly for no other reason than to prolong his torment.”
I cringed at the thought of Grandpa Franz being subjected to such horrors. I knew he had been through some awful things, but it was nauseating to hear about them in such gruesome detail.
“One night, the witches were about to conduct another torture session on him,” the reverend proceeded. “They started by illuminating the room with candles and torches. Suddenly, they paused and went back up the stairs, perhaps only briefly to get more of their satanic instruments. As fate would have it, they had left one of their tallow candles close to Franz’s restraints. At the risk of severe burns, he thrust the ropes restraining one of his wrists over the flame until it caught fire. When he judged it had burned just the right amount, he swept his arm forward and the rope came apart in flaming shreds. Having freed one arm, he used the candle to free his other limbs in the same way.
“He stumbled over their horrific artifacts until he found a torch. He lit it on fire and then waited by the stairwell. When the unsuspecting witches returned, he swung it directly in their faces. They screamed and fell to the floor, burned and blinded. Wasting no time, he ran up the steps and out of the basement, through a wooden door, and back into the night-time woods. He ran as fast as his malnourished legs would carry him. The only thing that guided him was a desire to get as far away from his captors as possible.”
I was leaning forward in my chair, hanging on every word. The reverend’s story had become like a movie I became so sucked into that I forgot it could be fiction. It was awe-inspiring to think that Grandpa Franz had the strength and cunning to make such a miraculous escape. But equally, the thought that he may have endured more than I ever could have imagined unsettled every nerve in my body.
“God must have been looking out for him then,” the reverend went on. “Because Franz just happened to stumble upon a sleeping platoon of American soldiers. The men on night watch nearly shot him out of fear when they saw him emerge from the dark woods; panicked, naked, and covered in bloody injuries. They lowered their guns when they heard him screaming for help in American English and listened in disbelief as he frantically recounted his plight.
“They took him in, gave him clothes, and fed him. But they believed him to be a madman, so they dropped him off at then next medical camp along their march. He stayed there for some time while they nursed him back to health. They cured his bodily wounds, but there was no curing the wounds of his mind. The darkness had found a home in him and was not prepared to leave. You know all too well how much mental anguish the war has caused him since.”
The reverend’s demeanor was solemn and resolute as he concluded his tale. He neither stuttered nor diverted his eyes from me. I was silent, overwhelmed, and unsure what to believe anymore. On the one hand, his story could not have been more outrageous and improbable. And yet, even if only a fraction of it was true, it was easily the most thorough explanation for Grandpa Franz’s lifelong struggle with PTSD I had ever heard. So many episodes from his past reared up from my memory and took on new clarity in light of the reverend’s horrific account.
“He has kept this darkness buried for many years,” the reverend resumed after a long pause. “But now I fear something is taking hold of his unconscious mind, making the things he witnessed bubble up to the surface. I fear something evil was guiding his hand as he set up that alter in his sleep. And if what you say is true, that this is the first time he’s done it, I also fear that something new in his life enabled the evil to make him do it. I believe it’s the new medicine, Henrik. I believe you should take him off it now, before it’s too late.”
I instantly snapped out of my trance as he said this. My blood pressure returned to its former heights as I saw his true intentions. He had zero interest in enlightening me with my Grandpa’s traumatic past. He had been trying to alter Grandpa Franz’s medical prescription all along, based on nothing but his superstitions. It was enough to remind me that the reverend told crazy stories in order to manipulate people for a living. I felt stupid and insulted to have fallen for them.
“Maybe instead of playing doctor with people who have real mental health conditions, you should leave this to science, Father.” I scoffed, feeling as though steam might start rising from my ears.
The reverend sighed, took off his glasses, and then rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger. “Tell me, Henrik, how much do you really know about this new medicine he’s on?”
“I know it’s the only thing that has managed to stabilize him.”
“But you know nothing else about it, correct? And since it’s experimental medicine, neither does science. Is that not the case? Of course, what do I know? I’m just a man of God, not a doctor or scientist. But I do know this, Henrik: thinking you know more than you do can be more dangerous than not knowing. As an old friend of your grandpa, and out of an abundance of caution, I urge you to reconsider that medicine.”
“Don’t you have a Saturday mass or something to prepare for? You really should get going,” I said while waving him away, unwilling to play his game anymore and concerned about what I might do if I became even angrier.
The reverend looked down at me with disgust. “Fine then. I can only show people the good way. They’re the ones who must choose to save themselves.”
I stood up and motioned toward the door. He stood there with a pensive face for a moment, before gazing down and walking slowly into the foyer with his hands held behind his back. I followed and opened the front door for him. That familiar blast of cold air scraped every piece of my exposed skin like vaporous nettles. He put on his fedora and stepped out into the snowscape, his eyes still shifting back and forth.
Suddenly he stopped, pivoted in the snow, and turned to face me.
“Look, Henrik, I know you’ve never been a fan of the church and we’ve never been best friends, but I want you to know that I’m proud of you. I’m proud of how you’ve turned your life around since you got out. I’m proud of the care you’ve shown Franz in the late hours of his life. You’re a paragon of redemption. Do you know Matthew 7:13? It says the gate that leads to destruction is wide and broad, and there are many who enter, but the gate that leads to life is narrow and straight, and few find their way to it. I believe you once entered the broad gate to destruction but are now embarking on a noble journey toward the gate to life. The last thing you need now is to let this wickedness thwart your new honorable quest.”
These words sent me unexpectedly spiraling in all directions. Part of me wanted to shut the door in his face for trying to manipulate me with Bible verses, but another part felt too confused to do anything. I wanted to be suspicious and dismissive of his sudden praise, but against my orders, my brain released all the chemicals that make one feel appreciative and humbled. The way he said he was “proud of you” like a father to his son activated a childlike longing to be acknowledged and cared for; a sentiment I had felt from the moment my parents died, but that had been unfulfilled ever since. He may not have meant a single word he said, but he succeeded in knocking down my guard and confounding me with colliding emotions. I stood there facing him like a mute man for what felt like hours.
Finally, I sighed and pushed out the words. “See you at the banquet tomorrow, Father.”
The door squeaked as I gently shut it. Looking out through the peep hole, I saw him close his eyes, cross himself, and then turn around and walk away towards his black car. He got inside, did a three-point turn, and disappeared behind the trees at the first bend of our unshoveled, white driveway.
I spun around and leaned against the door, alone with my brooding thoughts in the silence of our family home in the woods. My mind raced in circles, grasping for explanations, arriving at none. The enormity of not knowing seemed to widen with each minute that I stood there doing nothing.
I pulled my notebook out of my robe pocket, flipped to the next blank page, and wrote. Possible side effect: practicing witchcraft in sleep?
It pained all my rational sentiments just to write it down. It was as if I was doing psycho-science a disservice simply by giving such a ludicrous idea credibility by putting it to paper. And yet, the reverend had planted the seed of doubt in my mind, and it had sprung up a garden of “what ifs?”
It was then that I resolved to find the answer. I would watch Grandpa Franz like a hawk. I would record his every move. I would study every book I owned. I would get to the bottom of it, even if I had to quit my job in the mines and get a psychology degree to do it. It was a daunting prospect. Daunting, but oddly exciting.
But first, I had to take Grandpa Franz out ice fishing. It was too nice of a day not to.