stone face

Tale In The Crypt


~Barry N. Malzberg~

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My name is Josiah Bushnell Grinnell. In 1853, responding to the invocation of the famous Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, I take myself to the new state of Iowa and thereupon establish both a town and a collage. "Go west, young man, go west and grow with the country," Greeley has said, and solemn young fellow that I am, I take him seriously. What a surprise, what a disappointment to learn only after I am established where the tall corn grows that Greeley stole this from an obscure Indiana newspaperman named Soule and has appropriated the statement as his own. If I had known this, I might have gone to Indiana.

Instead, here I am in Iowa. What an unusually solemn man I am! I have always taken the invocations of my elders seriously, which is why the college I establish, the town to be named after me, the entire state itself takes on a somewhat sectarian whiff. A century later it is impossible for citizens to enter upon our interstates without murmuring prayers. In 1857, Sioux Indians massacre men, women, and children at Spirit Lake, the last massacre by Indians in the midwest and the released souls, the violated spirits add their pain and terror to the general chatter. On a hot May afternoon, the dead sun sprawling low in the panels of sky, the sounds of the cattle rising toward the dusk, it is possible to imagine oneself if one were a small man lying in a field, gazing, that one had entered upon the outer regions of the landscape painted by the honorable John Calvin. It is a difficult state, a difficult time.

I, Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, know this; know all the interstices and difficulties of the sovereign state of Iowa. Cleaved from the Wisconsin territory, admitted to statehood on December 28, 1846, Iowa sprawls, flatland, on the way to the west. There are ways around it-there are ways around everything the good Lord knows-but once on the interstate, it is hard to find the way.

Here it is. It is 1954. I have been deceased for many decades, however, my spirit-no less than those massacred at Spirit Lake-lives on. Iowa is the possessor of its inhabitants, no one who has ever lived in this state has known true release. We hang around. This may seem an unlikely statement, a remarkable condition, but wait your turn, enjoy the common passage before you act in judgement. Here in 1954 the senior senator from this great state, the honorable, if that is quite the term I am seeking, Bourke B. Hickenlooper is inveighing against the Communists at a Fourth of July picnic. Hickenlooper, with McCarthey, with Jenner, is the pride of what may be called the conservative wing. To Hickenlooper it is an insult when the first Negro set the first Negro foot on the Negro shores of the first Negro city in this country, uttering incoherent Negro chants. It is not that Hickenlooper is a racist, you understand. It is merely that he is still linked to Spirit Lake by ancestry and blood, still sees the frame of the assassin arched against the moonlight. "We must expel the Communists from our shores," Hickenlooper says. He is on a podium, at some remove from the crowd, screaming without the benefit of microphone. Fourth of July picnics are still important in the Iowa of this time. Politicians are expected to make speeches, to invoke Americana. Hickenlooper is merely doing his duty. Of his true thoughts of the matter we know not. He may or may not have an interior. Most politicians do not. "McCarran Act!" Hickenlooper screams. "Joseph McCarthy! Millard Tydings! Eighty-seven hundred card-carrying Communists!" And so on. The crowd reacts stiffly. It is very hot. A band plays in the distance, raucous parade ground arias of the kind soon enough to be popularized by Meredith Willson (born in Mason City) in The Music Man. "Who promoted Peress?" Hickenlooper asks. The crowd mutters. Their mood in not hostile but they are tired.

My name is Josiah Bushnell Grinnell. It is hard to explain exactly what I am doing at this picnic or what I expect to come of it. We Iowans (or transplanted Iowans) as I have said, our spirits live on. Even after death. Relegated to some limbo we come in and out, reincarnates or observers, bound to some flatland of the spirit, replicating our history, moving in and out of time. Screams of the settlers at Spirit Lake. Bullshit of Greeley. Moving ever west. From this limbo I emerge at odd times, strange moments, find myself at Iowa State Events. Such seems to be the case now. I am jammed in with this crowd, listening to Bourke B. Hickenlooper. To my left and right are Iowans of various sexes and ages, most of them young, in a burst of color, standing at parade rest, listening to the rantings of the honorable senator. Now and then a baby yowls or a young woman faints, her parasol preceding her on a graceless slide to the ground. Men leap to the rescue of the women, the babies are pacified in other ways. The huge bowl of the sky presses. It is indecently hot, even for a spirit, even for the gullible sectarian spirit of a man who would listen to Horace Greeley (at least I never knew of Horatio Alger; it is impossible to say to what state he might have sent me.) "Hickenlooper!" I shout. "Hey, Hickenlooper!"

The crowd stares at me. Sometimes I can be heard and sometimes not; sometimes I am visible and at other times invisible. Reincarnation, like life itself, is a chancy business. At this time it would appear that I can be seen. Yards down range the senator stares at me, his stride momentarily broken. "Hey, Senator!" I shout. Hickenlooper removes his enormous hat, peers at me. I stride forward, closing the ground between us.

"You're all wrong, don't you know that?" I say, "Listen to me!" I say, turning around, gesturing at the farmers, their wives, the beaus and beauxettes in their holiday undress who look at me incuriously. "This man is not telling the truth. We lived to open frontiers, he is closing them!"

I am stared at incomprehendingly. One could, after all, envision no other possibility. Politics may be entertainment but metaphysics is unendurable in the Hawkeye State. "He speaketh with forked tongue!" I point out.

There are a forest of shrugs around me. I turn back toward the podium, find Hickenlooper in brisk conference with several aides who have jumped to the sides of the platform. He cups an ear, listens intently. They gesture at me. "Answer the charge!" I yell. "Don't hide behing the others, explain yourself. Tell why you are breeding fear, why you are seeking to close off that which will be opened."

Hickenlooper points at me. The hand is commanding, enormous. At my side, suddenly, are two earnest, honest Iowa state police; they seize me by the elbows. "If you will, sir," one says, "if you'll just come along."

"Don't arrest me," I say, struggling in their grasp, "arrest that man. That man is the assassin. I am Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, the founder of Grinnell College. I am a man of substance-"

"Card-carrying!" I hear Hickenlooper shout and then, this is the truth, I hear no more; speedily, forcibly, forcefully, I am carried from the grounds. Beaus and beauxettes, farmers and their daughters, little townheaded children and Iowa cattle, they all look at me mournfully. "This isn't the end, this is just the passage, it's going to happen again, again and again-"

"Stay calm, sir," one says, "everything will be all right. Just don't struggle, understand the situation-"

I close my eyes. Again and again and it is too late. In the sudden, cool rushing darkness ninety-seven years are taken from me as if by death itself and I am at Spirit Lake once more, oh God, I am at Spirit Lake and in the sudden, clinging, rushing, tumultuous darkness, I hear the sound of the Sioux closing in around us; one high wail coming then, concentrating them, poised-

I scream then, try once more to give the alarm. But I cannot; my throat is dry, my lungs are cut out, my fate is darkness; in the night, eleven years after the union, three years before the Civil War, they are coming, they are coming and the stain will leach outward, ever outward-

I listened, I came. I propagated, and I could not save them. And in the face of the Hickenloopers, through to dissolution itself, I never, never will. Until by something that is, at last, beyond me, I too will be cut off.