Hopeless Maine’s very first and much-anticipated Hallowe’en party had been a disaster. The ancient cauldron in which the stew was cooking had exploded into a thousand pieces and, as if by magic, a huge and slightly comical bird had risen, squawking from its ruins. More worrying, by far, were the actions of Daniel Rooksmoor, the orphan who had been given the task of feeding the fire beneath the cauldron. Daniel had ingested three drops of the ill-fated stew (the remainder having seeped into the ground) and a profound change had come over him. Looking suddenly older and with a wild light in his eyes, the orphan had followed the Cauldron Bird’s flight and like one in a trance, wandered out towards the mysterious Gydynap Hills.
Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs was wracked by guilt. He had inspired the islanders to hold the event and now felt responsible for Daniel’s disappearance. He quickly resolved that he should go into the hills himself in the hopes of persuading the boy to return to the orphanage.
Hallowe’en is not an ideal night to begin such a quest, especially on Hopeless, but Joseph, wary of the dangers, felt that he had no choice.
He was not a little surprised, therefore, when he reached the highest point of the hills without a single problem; dawn, however, was still some hours away and there was plenty of time for trouble to manifest. He had expected it earlier when, on several occasions, he thought that he had spotted someone – or more likely something – following him from a distance. In the event nothing too awful had happened so maybe, he reasoned, it was his own uneasiness making him see things that were not there.
Besides his beloved Betty Butterow, only one other person had watched Joseph head for the hills. This was Randall Middlestreet, the Night-Soil man. He was half-way through his rounds when he caught sight the Passamaquoddy trader. Randall could not but help wonder what was going on; the hills were no place for a lone walker at night.
It is both the gift and the curse of the Night-Soil Man to repel most creatures, human or otherwise, and it took but an instant for him to make the decision to abandon the rest of his shift, follow Joseph and try to keep him safe. A Night-Soil man has few friends but Joseph, Betty and the Lypiatt family had always been kind to him. Randall would die before allowing harm to befall any of them.
While he had taken care to keep well downwind of Joseph, the reek of the Night-Soil Man had kept all but the most olfactory-challenged beasts at bay. There had been few incidents for Randall to attend to; happily the creatures showing any interest in pursuing Joseph tended to be small and could be efficiently despatched with a well-aimed boot. It was fortunate that the nastier predators, the night-stalkers, would not be up here on the empty hills but busy hunting their prey in the dark streets below, where flesh and blood was in plentiful supply.
Joseph had run out of ideas. He had walked for hours and found no trace of Daniel. His best plan now was to find somewhere to rest, light a fire and wait until sunrise. A dozen or so yards to his rear, Randall did the same, minus the fire.
It was just before dawn when the wind changed direction. Joseph had been dozing fitfully for a hour or more. He was jerked awake when his nostrils twitched involuntarily at the intrusion of a sudden and decidedly unpleasant aroma. Joseph smiled; there was only one person, as far as he was aware, who could announce their presence in such a way.
“Randall…?” he called, not looking back.
He heard the Night-Soil man stir, then begin to wander over. The stench became stronger. Joseph tried not to gag; he knew that after a minute or two the smell would become tolerable.
“Hi Joe. I was just passin’. What’s going on?”
Joseph smiled to himself again upon hearing Randall’s white lie. He immediately guessed the real reason for the Night-Soil Man being there. In truth, Joseph was glad of the company and soon found himself telling Randall the whole sorry tale of the Hallowe’en party and how Daniel followed the Cauldron Bird to the hills.
“I’ll happily help, as long as you can bear my company,” Randall offered.
Joseph assured the Night-Soil Man that he was very welcome to join him. Indeed, the combination of familiarity and fresh breeze had diluted Randall’s smell considerably.
As a watery sun battled through the ever-present mist, the pair made their way deeper into the hills. Neither mentioned the several disembodied eyes, watching from the sky above them. They had both witnessed these before, of course. Everyone on Hopeless had, but there was an almost superstitious tendency to pretend they were not there. Here, however, high above the rest of the island, they were hard to ignore.
It was Randall who spotted Daniel first. He was about fifty yards away, kneeling before a large boulder. The boy was gently rocking back and forth, his arms outstretched; they could hear him chanting.
“Pamola, O Great One, come to me… Pamola, O Great One, come to me…”
Joseph stiffened, scarcely believing what he was hearing. This was unexpected.
He put his hand on Randall’s shoulder, a wordless command to remain still.
The two men watched for some minutes as Daniel continued to rock and chant. The chanting became more and more intense, gradually mingling with what seemed to be the roar of distant thunder. Little by little the noise grew louder, as if something was drawing near, responding to the boy’s call. Although Joseph knew the name of Pamola, even he was unprepared for what happened next. A huge bird of prey alighted upon the boulder in front of Daniel. There was some resemblance to the Cauldron Bird but the strange creature had metamorphosed into something very much bigger and far more terrible. If once it had appeared comical, that aspect was no more. There were no signs of vegetable talons or cabbage-leaf wings. This creature was wrought as if out of brass and leather; it was god-like and not in a sweet and gentle messianic way. It was quite obvious that this was something from a savage and distant past that would have little time for changing water into wine, healing the sick and suchlike.
Daniel leaned back and spread his arms wide, as though in welcome.
The bird screeched, making both men cover their ears. It hopped clumsily on to the ground and flapped its mighty wings, raising a dust storm. Joseph and Randall could only watch, helpless, as Pamola mantled Daniel with its wings, as a hawk would do when devouring its prey. They could only guess at what was happening. Suddenly, with some more dust-storm inducing flaps, the great bird rose into the misty air, leaving no trace of the boy behind.
The two observers remained in silence for some minutes, watching as Pamola gradually disappeared from sight, heading across the channel to the mainland.
It was only when he was certain that the bird was many miles away did Joseph dare to speak its name and give Randall an explanation.
“ A neighbouring tribe, the Penobscot, has a legend,” Joseph said. “Pamola – it means ‘he curses on the mountain’ – is an evil spirit who is said to reside on Mount Katahdin. It is called The Greatest of Mountains, yet it is feared by all of the Indians of Maine, even today. Pamola will kill and injure unless he is appeased by a sacrifice every now and then. He can be capricious, though. There are tales of him giving favour by taking a hunter to his own lands and lavishing upon him all that he might desire. I’d like to think that such a thing has happened to Daniel, but I fear that is unlikely. Daniel Rooksmoor is gone, Randall and we have been cursed – or maybe privileged – to have witnessed all of this.”
The Night-Soil man said little as they walked down from the hills. He had much to think about. Ancient Welsh cauldrons and Native American demons were strange bedfellows. But this was Hopeless, Maine, where strange was all too commonplace. Randall yawned and suddenly realised how tired he was feeling. He needed to sleep. Somehow, though, he did not imagine he would find sleep particularly easy to come by for some time.
Art by Cliff Cumber