Large summer houses line the road from the twin towers of Narragansett to the promontory of Point Judith, each one trying to outdo the others with opulence or originality verging on the kitsch. Castles with mock towers and turrets vie with grand gothic chateaus, villas with alabaster roman temples vie with chocolate box log cabins. Gleaming and silent in the New England fall they await the next brief summer visits from grand New York families. Meanwhile they stand like gaudy sentinels, the sea echoing eerily from their many dark windows.
Point Judith is not kind to its guests. The surrounding ocean ensures that deep fogs regularly roll across the point, enveloping the houses and eating away at the expensive fixtures. The boom of the lighthouse at the Point is a jarring backdrop, even in summer, and the ocean waves ravage the cliffs on either side.
The construction of such a vanity project in a hostile location reflected the pioneering New England spirit and the wealth of the owners who could afford the unending maintenance. The cupolas and faux European spires are an architectural defiance to the elements, and to the native communities that previously lived at the Point, driven out by European settlers.
One house stands apart from the others. It is small compared to the mansions further along the road and slightly shabby. It occupies the residential plot of land closest to the lighthouse and consequently suffers the worst effects of the fog horn. Its design is modelled on a two story granite farmhouse from the highlands of Scotland. But even as its neighbours awakened over the summer this house remained obstinately shuttered and the gardens overgrown.
It was this sleeping house that was discovered one October evening by Professor Charles, an entomologist from Cambridge, England.
He received a message to attend the office of his faculty head just after the beginning of the Spring term. He arrived just after 10.30am on a wet English Monday morning, hovered outside the oak panelled door and knocked tentatively.
“Ah Charles.” The aged gravelly public school tones of Pinkerton, his faculty head came through the door. He was expected.
He shuffled in, never comfortable with meetings, especially when he didn’t know the topic in advance. His last project, examining the motion of millipedes, had gone horribly wrong when he walked in his sleep one evening from his college to the laboratory and inexplicably released a colony of millipedes into the entire entomology department requiring a shut down and fumigation.
That was now a couple of years ago but he noticed that the few faculty members who had, in the past, given him cordial greetings, now seemed to avoid him. He didn’t challenge them; he never had been good with people. He felt most at home with his beloved insects: so practical, so efficient, so consistent. Unlike the humans he regrettably depended upon for his further research opportunities.
Pinkerton, was one of the worst. He failed to see the inherent beauty of insect development, merely the financial opportunities of applying insect movement to industrial processes. Pinkerton reminded him of a larvae: fat bald and squirmy with no neck and chubby pasty fingers.
“Charles, I’ll get straight to the point.” Charles was instantly grateful.
“Have you heard the name Thaddeus Wainwright?”
“I suspected not. He was a famous American industrialist, but also an enthusiastic amateur entomologist. Many people knew him as the inventor of an efficient petrol engine, but you may know him as the author of ‘A guide to North American Beetles.’
Charles wracked his brain. Yes, there had been an irritating error on page ten but the book was a comprehensive guide for amateurs.
“Well he is dead.”
Charles looked blank.
“Or perhaps, as you might say, reached the end of his life cycle.” Pinkerton chuckled and drummed his fingers on the desk. They reminded Charles of the motion of a millipede.
“He has donated his house in New England to the college for the sole purpose of insect research. Personally I wanted to sell it to raise funds as it is on a prime piece of land, but the terms of the grant are very strict. I asked around the faculty and the consensus was that you might be the perfect candidate to spend some time there.” He beamed. Charles stood in stunned silence.
“Excellent. I’ll take that as a yes. It will take a while to sort out the paperwork as I assume you will want to take your specimens with you. Let’s say you will start in the fall? I don’t think anyone else is keen so you can stay there as long as you like.”
And so it was that Charles found himself standing in the shadow of the shabby New England house, and felt for the first time in many years a positive sense of anticipation. Perhaps now he could continue his studies in peace.
The house was ridiculously large for one person, a glistening slate and granite exoskeleton filled with curiosities. The grant came with a small maintenance fund and the house had been adequately, if minimally maintained by a caretaker from Narragansett, the nearest local town. The interior was gloomy and old fashioned, all wood panelling and dark leather furniture. To Charles’s excitement there was a library well stocked with rare tomes of entomology and local lore, however curiously and annoyingly, some of the more esoteric volumes seemed to have pages removed. He made a mental note to ask Langley, an academic colleague from nearby Yale University who had managed the bequest on behalf of Pinkerton, whether he had discovered any of the missing pages from Wainwright’s papers.
The caretaker of the house, a silent but striking middle aged native American man, ensured a regular and ample supply of wood for the fire. The house had not been renovated since the turn of the century so Charles spent his evenings studying by gaslight and found the experience soothing compared to the harsh lighting of the college library.
His beloved insects, a collection of which had accompanied him in various tanks and cages seemed also to appreciate the quiet calm of the house. After a brief period of adjustment they seemed to be thriving. He spent hours observing their activities in rapt fascination, which was fortunate since there was little alternative entertainment on the Point during the fall evenings when the fog drew in.
Prior to Charles’s departure from Cambridge, he had received from Langley a sketch of a beetle, which Langley could not identify and which he had discovered in the Wainwright house whilst doing an inventory at the request of the lawyers for the estate. The sketch had arrived at the college accompanied by a note:
I heard you got the short straw and are coming to join us in the States. I knew the old man; I used to visit him regularly since he was such an enthusiast and had some very special books which you will find in the library. I’m also sad to say I was the first to visit the house after he passed. Dare I say it was perhaps a blessing at the end – he had gone a bit bonkers and I knew he would never leave that house to go into a nursing home.
There is one mystery that you can perhaps help me with. I found this beauty dead in the room where he died and I’m unable to identify it. The coroner was content that he died of a heart attack, but I wanted to check for my own peace of mind whether this critter was venomous. Such unusual mouthparts! It could certainly give a very nasty bite. I will leave the specimen in a tube on the table in the house where you will easily find it.
I will come and visit you once you are settled to make sure you don’t go as mad as Thaddeus in that damp pile.
Charles found the tube as promised in the house on the library table and stared at the beetle which was about two and a half inches long. He had not managed to make an identification in England but was confident the books in Wainwright’s library would have a reference. The specimen was ebony, with six legs and a green shiny tinge over the wing cases. It was an unremarkable specimen, save for the head which had four vicious looking extended mandibles.
He gently agitated the tube. Nothing. He stared closely at the beetle. Langley had said it was dead when it was found, but many insect species could survive in a coma-like state many weeks without food and water. He sighed and placed the tube back on the table. The next morning he decided to speak with the caretaker of the house to see if he had previously seen such a specimen.
Charles heard the sound of digging in the garden whilst he was eating his breakfast and saw the caretaker turning over the dead undergrowth. He had long straight hair, black but now greying at the temples and was of medium build, but the ease with which he dug disclosed his strength. He did not look up when he heard Charles’s footsteps on the path.
“Excuse me?” The caretaker slowly stopped digging and regarded Charles silently with dark eyes.
“Have you seen this before?” Charles showed him the test tube which contained the beetle.
The man looked at it carefully, then looked at Charles and shook his head.
Charles persisted. “It was found in the room where Thaddeus passed.”
The man raised an eyebrow then finally spoke in a slow deeply accented voice. “You are the expert.” Then he turned away and continued digging.
Charles felt frustrated, but appreciated his brevity. He would not give up until an identification had been made. If he had really found a new species, his reputation in the department would be rehabilitated. From now on all his energies would be directed to the task.
Charles had learned from his preparatory reading prior to this trip that Narragansett had a local history museum. He travelled there early the next day in the hope of finding further information about the beetle. A bell rang as he pushed open the front door of the quaint New England building, and a middle aged Native American woman in a pink silk dress came to the desk.
“You’re my first visitor of the day.” She smiled kindly. “How can I help you?”
She had huge dark eyes and high cheekbones. Her hair which was once jet black but now flecked with grey was pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head and decorated with colourful wooden native American accessories. Charles thought she was beautiful. Her eyes reminded him of a girl he once adored at University, to whom he had tried to fumblingly express his feelings only to later be mocked. It was after that experience he decided to dedicate his time to his insects whose structured lives provided comfort in a confusing world of human emotions.
He paused an awkward length of time before he pulled out the test tube containing the beetle and said “I wondered if you had seen one of these before.”
She pulled the test tube closer then stepped back when she realised what was in it.
Her initial warmth towards him evaporated.
“You’re the Englishman staying at the Wainwright house.”
“I didn’t realise my presence was such a local event.” Charles felt sad that he seemed again to have disappointed a woman in a way he could not understand. He also liked to keep a low profile and he was genuinely aghast that news of his stay was the topic of local discussion.
She melted a little at the sight of his distress. “This is a small town and not much happens. Thaddeus’s death was unexpected. He was well liked.” She paused and added sadly “Many people in my community wanted that house to be a memorial.”
This information came as a surprise. “Do you recognise the beetle?” He responded lamely.
“Have you met Langley?” She responded coolly. “I’m sure he will be able to help you.”
He was about to explain that it was Langley who had asked him to identify the beetle but she had already turned her back and he sensed that a further contribution to the conversation was not welcome. He wandered into the library instead and started browsing the history section.
He discovered from a local history book that the area was originally settled by the Narragansett Indians, from whom the town took its name. He moved on to the newspaper repository.
According to a clipping from the Rhode Island Examiner, further housing construction works had recommenced at the point. He had seen what he had assumed was a construction site slightly down from the lighthouse by the side of the road adjoining a wooded area. The land was no doubt valuable, but judging from the condition of the site it appeared that no work had been undertaken there for a while. He considered enquiring with the construction company whether they had discovered any beetle colonies during the course of their work.
He took the clipping and returned to the front desk where the woman he had seen earlier was repairing bindings on books. He watched her long fingers stroke the covers, their gentle movements like the antenna of a butterfly, until she suddenly looked up and met his gaze.
“Can I help you?”
“Umm.” The sight of her had caused him to forget why he was there, but he glanced down at the clipping and remembered.
“Do you know the construction company doing work at the Point?”
“Yes, but they won’t help you since the works are currently subject to a court order. Brought by my tribe.” She looked angry then sad. “That site is sacred to the tribe.If you want more information I suggest you speak with the Narragansett Historical Society.”
She reached into a shelf behind her and passed him another folder which contained newspaper clippings featuring the Narragansett Historical Society, a collection of wealthy, exclusively white people apparently committed to the preservation of the town, or at least their preferred version of it. The clippings dated back to the 1890’s. Judging from the appearance of the town now they had been very successful. Not much had changed in 60 years.
The society seemed to be comprised of local luminaries: the head of the chamber of commerce and the mayor were both members. Doubtless there was a big overlap with local Masonry. There were photographs and reports of various civic functions, fetes, Christmas parties. Langley was there, naturally, his grinning face popping up front and centre in many of the photographs. How did some people manage to socialise so effortlessly? But then he realised it was not only the town that had not changed. Judging from the date on the clippings, Langley had not aged in 60 years.
Impossible. He knew Langley came from a long line of wealthy academics, so in all likelihood the man in the picture was his father. Rumour had it that his ancestors were some of the earliest white settlers in the area. The aquiline nose and thick blonde hair, just long enough to be rakish, but not long enough to be dissolute, the perfectly cut tweed suit and the easy smile which charmed ladies and waiters alike. Langley was everything he was not. He snapped the folder shut and handed it back to the woman on the desk. She accepted it silently but looked at him curiously.
His hours in the library seemed to raise more questions than answers and eventually he conceded defeat and left the museum to explore Narragansett town. There were candy shops with chocolates piled up on the counter, tailors selling bespoke tweed suits and watchmakers who still constructed their products on the premises. He paused outside a taxidermy store when the glass eyes of a fox seemed to be staring at him. He stared back, then was seized by an idea and hurried inside.
The inside of the store was fusty and filled with silent animals: owls frozen in mid hunt, weasels playing golf and dormice having tea parties. He wondered that such items still found a market. He was marvelling at a stuffed porcupine when the proprietor appeared behind the desk.
“Can I help you?” He was a bald rotund man in his early 60’s in a three piece tweed suit and tiny spectacles. Charles believed he recognised him from the photographs of the Historical Society.
“I was wondering if you had any insect collections?”
“Insect collections.” He rubbed his chin. “You mean butterflies?”
“I was thinking more of beetles.”
“Hmm.” There was an awkward pause and the man peered at him over the top of his spectacles. “You’re the Englishman staying at the Wainwright house.” He seemed to engage in a moment of internal discussion, then disappeared into the back of the shop, deftly sidestepping a stuffed wildcat on the way. Soon came the creaking of a stepladder and the moving of boxes.
Charles entertained himself looking at some curious amalgams of creatures. A mercreature seemed to be an amalgam of a monkey and an iguana. Just as he was speculating what kind of mind would want to create such a thing he saw it. Sitting on one of the upper shelves. Another beetle identical to the one in his test tube, but smaller, and very much alive.
He glanced around then emptied out the contents of a match box that was sitting on the counter, and climbed on a crate next to the shelves. The beetle fortunately had not moved. He dropped the open matchbox on it and scooped it inside, tucking the closed matchbox into the secret sandwich pocket he had asked his tailor to sew into the jacket tails of all his suits, which allowed him to sneak sandwiches into the library when he was an undergraduate. Unfortunately the shelves were not designed for such agitation. Not being fixed to the wall the whole shelf began to topple taking Charles and a miscellaneous collection of stuffed animals down with it.
He awoke in the hospital. Langley was sitting by his bedside laughing.
“You’re awake! Your reputation does not disappoint. But I must admit this was spectacular even by your standards.”
Charles mentally examined his body under the bedclothes. Everything hurt, especially his head.
“Nothing broken, amazingly,” said Langley. “It seems you landed on your head, your toughest part and just got a concussion and a few bruises.
Charles remembered the fall.
“I’ve notified Cambridge of course. You can imagine Pinkerton was not amused at having an insurance claim so early on in your tenure here but I told him it was coming sooner or later so better to get it over with. The estate can more than cover it. As for Ratty Jones, taxidermist extraordinaire, your escapade has caused the greatest stock movement his establishment has seen in ten years. Look, you even made the Rhode Island Examiner.”
Langley held up that morning’s paper with the headline
“British academic’s life preserved following taxidermy accident.”
Charles’ insides churned.
“Oh sadly there was one casualty from the incident.”
Langley held out a paper towel containing fragments of glass, and the crushed remains of the beetle. “Sadly now we’ll never know who she was.”
“She?” Charles momentarily forgot his headache.
“From the size I assumed it was a queen.”
Charles pondered how Langley could assume such a thing.
“Get some rest. You can chase butterflies tomorrow.”
After the initial pain began to wear off Charles actually began to enjoy his hospital stay. Comforting institutional food arrived three times a day and eating was one fewer decision for him to make. Langley dropped off some back copies of entomologist quarterly, but didn’t stay to chat.
After three days a nurse came by mid-morning to tell him he had a visitor. He assumed it was Langley but it was the woman from the museum, whose name he learned was Maisie, who appeared in her pink dress by his bedside.
His heart leapt a little as she entered the room, a feeling he had not experienced since the chrysalis of an endangered shadow moth had unexpectedly pupated five years ago.
“Thank God you are well!” I read about the accident in the paper.”
“Well I’m alive.” He said ruefully.
“What did they do to you?”
“They?” He was puzzled. “My mother always said I was the greatest danger to myself.”
“You were not pushed?”
“No. But it would have been cheaper if I had been.” He sighed.
“How are you feeling?”
He was feeling better, but everything still hurt.
“Take some of this.”
She removed a phial from her handbag containing a sticky black substance and poured some onto a teaspoon. Charles opened his mouth to protest but she took the opportunity to thrust the teaspoon between his lips.
“Mmmph!” Charles was shocked, but as he swallowed he felt a warmth and peace filling his body, and his pains seemed to disappear.
She quickly changed the subject before he could ask more questions. “What about the beetle?”
“Destroyed I’m afraid.” Then he remembered the beetle from the shop. “Please pass me my jacket”
She handed it over from the closet and he rummaged in the pockets. Nothing. But wait. He ran his hand along the bottom edge of the rear of his jacket. Yes! In his secret pocket. He pulled out the matchbox. The beetle was in there and very much alive judging by the way it angrily reared up under the hospital lights. He snapped the box shut.
“I found another. In the taxidermy shop.”
“Have you told anyone about this beetle?”
“No. I forgot I had it.”
“Then keep it that way.”
“But why? We need to advertise the find! Perhaps there is a colony in the town.”
She looked at him sadly.
“You have much to learn about this town and its people. But you are a good man and we think you can help us.”
Charles was shocked. In his thirty years of academic practice not one person had ever called him a good man. People tended to avoid him and he assumed that was just the natural order of the world.
“Thaddeus was also a good man. But he had an unfortunate end. We are keen to keep you with us.” She was now whispering.
Suddenly the door swung open and Langley strode into the room.
“Charles! I see you are much improved. And you have a guest! Maisie, I’m delighted to see that you are taking such an interest in the welfare of our English friend. It seems Charles will be coming home sooner than expected.”
Langley turned to her, “I thought I saw a queue outside the library on my way here.” She got up and exited the room wordlessly.
“Well Charles, what are your plans now that the mysterious beetle is lost to us forever?”
Charles opened and shut his mouth a couple of times like a beached fish.
“Butterflies.” He finally blurted out. He always was a terrible liar.
“Charles, it’s October.” Langley walked across to the bed then patted him on the shoulder. “I think that bang on the head may have done more damage than I thought. I’ll tell Pinkerton that you are looking into the reproductive cycle of earthworms. That should discourage any further questions. Take as much time as you need to recover.” He went to leave, then stopped.
“Oh and be careful of the natives. They are boracic and desperate for support for their pet projects. A man of science shouldn’t get dragged into such primitive hoo-ha. It wouldn’t be good for your reputation.”
Later that afternoon a nurse examined him again, gave him a cup of tea then told him he was free to leave. He gathered up his things, carefully checking that the matchbox with the beetle was still in his coat.
Back at the house life fell back into its usual routine. He saw the caretaker a couple of times in the garden but the man did not speak. He wondered whether Langley might be right about the native Americans. But all the same he did not mention the beetle in his possession to anyone and dropped it into one of his tanks.
It lay on the sandy bottom for a couple of moments, then sprang into life taking cover under some leaves. He laid a dish of sugar water on the bottom of the tank, but it seemed uninterested. He shone his flashlight into the tank and it seemed to shrink further back under the leaves. He realised he had no clue how to care for this specimen and if he didn’t discover its preferred diet quickly it would starve.
He wanted to ask the taxidermist whether he had seen it before and whether there were others in the shop but sensed that a further visit to that establishment would not be wise. He had stayed out of the town since his incident and relied on his caretaker to bring in food. He sighed. If he could not make enquiries how would he ever identify this beetle? And why was everyone behaving so mysteriously?
As the night drew in and fog began to swirl around the house the lighthouse started up its plaintive howl. He was tired but the wailing of the lighthouse made it hard to sleep. He decided to take a walk.
It was a full moon. Walking through the fog was like walking through freezing cotton candy. He was carrying a flashlight but it was pointless. The beam kept reflecting back off the fog and dazzling him. He turned it off. He could find his way like a bat, following the sound of the lighthouse.
As he got closer to the point he could now hear the sound of the waves between the calls of the lighthouse. A breeze began to blow and the fog broke slightly in front of him. Was that a light up ahead? It was almost midnight.
A group were standing in a circle at the base of the lighthouse. His line of sight was intermittently obscured by fog but they seemed to be wearing red robes and holding burning torches. Had he stumbled onto some kind of ceremony? From the size and shape of the figures it was a mixture of genders and ages, however their faces were obscured by the large hoods of the robes.
One of the members appeared to be holding a staff aloft and speaking. Charles found it hard to make out the words between the booming of the lighthouse and the crashing of the waves, however the staff appeared to be topped with the sign of a beetle, and as he looked harder the robes seemed to be embroidered with the symbol of the beetle. Was this a native American ceremony? The beetle, or at least its image, seemed to be integral to the ceremony.
As he strained to watch the group through the fog he noticed they had now fallen silent. The lead figure, he guessed from the build to be a man, lifted aloft what appeared to be a chalice. The wind started to pick up and jostled the group. An inky black substance spilled from the chalice and dripped like oil down its golden surface and over his fingers. He gulped hungrily from the vessel before passing it counterclockwise to the next congregant, then eagerly licked his fingers.
Charles stumbled on some loose rocks and one of the congregants turned in his direction. Just at that point the fog started to close in again, and he could no longer see the group. He could feel his anxiety rising and his breathing became fast and shallow. The fog grew ever thicker and he felt like he was trying to suck air through gauze. He could no longer see his feet and he started to feel nauseous and disoriented. The fog felt almost alive, smothering his face with freezing wet kisses and pulling him towards the sound of the waves crashing against the cliffs.
He awoke late the next day in his bed. The house was quiet but he could hear someone moving about downstairs.
“Hello!” He called down.
“Well hello sleeping beauty!” Langley’s voice. His body soon followed.
“What happened? I remember going out for a walk last night.”
“You really are a one man disaster zone.” He tutted.
“John, your caretaker here found you passed out on the path last night. It looks like you tripped in the fog. It is very fortunate for you that he was replenishing your fuel late last night and found you and called me, otherwise you could have spent the night there.. Fortunately I was still up after a long night entertaining and came and put you to bed.”
“But the beetles!” Snatches of memories of the group were returning to him.
“That you dream about beetles comes as no surprise to me” said Langley. “Now since you are awake, forgive me if I would prefer not to be sharing your bedroom with you.”
“Yes of course.” He coughed awkwardly.
Langley let himself out and he staggered downstairs. His head hurt. Had the gathering he had seen last night really been a dream?
Perhaps the house was affecting him. A man had recently died there. It didn’t help that the nights were closing in and he had to light the gas lamps earlier and earlier. The fog now also came more frequently and winds from the sea rattled the badly insulated windows, waking him up in the early hours of the morning.
He made a cup of tea and a ham sandwich and sat in his draughty living room. The fire had gone out and the room was cold but he was comforted by the gentle chittering of his specimens. He decided to have another look at the beetle he had found at the taxidermists. He lifted the lid of the tank and peered inside. It did not look well at all. He prodded it with the end of his pen and it moved its appendages very slightly. As he was reaching over the tank a chunk of the ham sandwich he was clutching fell into the tank. Before he had a chance to reach in and remove it, he noticed the beetle suddenly stirred. It staggered over to the chunk of ham sandwich and appeared to begin chewing on the meat.
He watched in rapt amazement. A carnivorous beetle. Not unknown in New England but such species tended to inhabit places where organic death was continuous and plentiful. He dropped the remainder of his ham into the tank and carefully closed the lid.
Autumn was turning slowly into winter outside the old house. The wind blew and combined with the infernal wail of the lighthouse it sounded as though banshees were chasing around the house. He got out of bed, unable to get back to sleep. The house was freezing. He lit a candle and wandered over to the one room in the house that overlooked the point. It was hard to see much through the fog but he thought he could again see people moving in the mist. Was he imagining things again? He felt sweat beading his face in spite of the cold.
He received an invitation through the post a couple of days later from Yale to a Thanksgiving Dinner, he assumed via Langley, although the invitation ostensibly came from the head of the entomology department. He politely declined. As an Englishman he really didn’t see the point of his attendance, plus the thought of being obliged to make small talk with the various academic heads of department in attendance made him feel ill.
He had an evening cataloguing specimens planned and was surprised to hear a soft knock on his door at 6pm. Maisie was there. He was surprised at how happy he felt to see her.
“I thought I would find you home.” She smiled. “Can I come in?”
She moved some boxes of specimens recently shipped from England and sat down in a leather armchair, whilst he fussed around with teacups.
When he finally sat she looked at him closely. Following his recent accidents he had lost weight.
“How are you?”
“It’s not quite what I expected here.” He looked down into his tea.
“There is a gathering of the tribe tonight at the point. We would like you to join us.”
“It is one of the few nights of the year we can guarantee not to be disturbed.”
“I thought I saw the tribe at the point a couple of weeks ago.” He described the figures and his evening in the fog. “But perhaps it was just a dream. I do have a history of sleepwalking.”
“That was no dream.” She looked sad. “And those people were not our tribe. We have no need to cover our faces.” She drew closer to him and he could smell her smokey perfume. “Have faith and all will become clear. Meet us at the burial ground at midnight and wrap up warm.” With that, she rose and left.
He no longer knew who to believe. He was tempted to call Langley, but knew by now the man would be fork deep in Turkey, stuffing and research funding proposals.
Ultimately his curiosity overcame his reticence, and by a quarter to midnight he was lacing up his hiking boots. He left the house, but left the gas lamps burning. He could hear drumming as he approached the construction area and saw lights burning through the trees. To get into the ground he had to clamber, with some difficulty, over an ageing fence bearing the sign of the Narragansett construction company warning that “trespassers will be shot.”
The ground was turned over and marked with aged tracks of construction vehicles. He had to tread carefully to avoid falling in the dark into pits clearly dug as the foundation for a large house.
When he reached the source of the drumming in a clearing, he found a group of native Americans gathered in full ceremonial dress around a pile of branches. The scene was lit with flaming torches and he barely recognised Maisie, resplendent in paint and suede and his caretaker, John, at the head of the group. There were about forty people of all ages, singing in their native language. The symbol of the beetle was conspicuous on their clothing and religious objects.
At midnight the singing stopped and Maisie spoke, welcoming the attendees in English, and extending a warm welcome to Charles.
“Charles is a friend to our tribe. The spirits have brought him here.” A cheer went up from the group. A young girl in ceremonial dress walked over to Charles and whispered to him.
“These are for you. I’m sorry the books were damaged but it was the only way we could be sure to keep the information safe.” He looked down. In her hands were the missing pages from Thaddeus’s library containing detailed information about the beetle. “Read this and help us.”
The pages were old, badly printed and grubby, and written in an old style English which was hard to quickly decipher. He leafed through the crumpled folded pages with increasing astonishment. This beetle was unlike any species he has encountered in his career. It seemed that in addition to its carnivorous nature which he had already discovered, the crushed body of the beetle had a medicinal purpose: ground into a draught the author of these pages clearly believed the beetle had the power to prolong human life.
He was still reading the pages when John walked over and grasped him by the shoulder. “Take care. There are those who would seek to stop you. But the spirits have foretold us that you will succeed.”
Whilst Charles was processing this information the rhythm of the drumming changed and the group became very still and silent. From a distance away Charles saw a small group of Native Americans approaching the gathering holding torches and carrying something on what appeared to be a wooden stretcher. As they approached the drumming grew louder.
The group walked to the centre of the gathering and the pile of branches. Charles then suddenly realised what was happening as the bundle from the stretcher was placed on the branches. This was a funeral and the branches he assumed were a pyre.
Once the body was positioned on the branches the shroud was gently lifted away. Charles saw the face of an old woman, apparently at peace.
The whole group then approached the pyre placing branches over the body, until the face could no longer be seen.
The group fell back and John gave a speech in his native tongue. When he finished Charles expected the body would now be burned, but there was an extended silent pause where nothing seemed to happen other than the creaking of the wind in the trees.
As he looked out of the circle he noticed something moving. A dark shimmer was approaching the circle. He started to feel anxious but then felt someone grasp his hand, looked down and saw Maisie’s hand on his.
“Don’t be afraid. This is our way”
His downward gaze fell upon his shoes. Beetles were streaming across them heading for the pyre. The clearing was now carpeted with thousands of them, moving silently and purposefully, glinting in the torch light like an oil spill.
They swarmed over and into the pyre, burying deep within the branches. Then came the unearthly chewing sound of thousands of mandibles masticating dead flesh.
The next few hours were hazy, as he watched with wonderment as the pyre gradually collapsed as the beetles did their work. Just before dawn the beetles dispersed back into the trees. As the first rays of the sun touched the remains of the pyre it was set alight by the elders. The tribe stood in silent reverence as the flames consumed the branches and purified the bones, already picked clean of flesh. Maise released her grip on his hand. “Her soul is now at peace.” She looked radiant as she spoke the words despite a night without sleep.
“What happens to the bones?”
“They will be buried in our graveyard. Where they will rest, unless and until the historical society gets a court order to dig them up.”
Charles was confused. “I thought it was a simple housing dispute?”
Maisie looked at him sadly. “The historical society wants to build a lodge here. No right minded homeowner would want a house built on an Indian graveyard.”
As the sun rose the group started to disperse. “You should leave now,” said Maisie. “Don’t forget what you have seen here.”
He walked back to his house, staggered through his front door, fell into bed and slept.
He woke late and felt a draught. The noise of the sea seemed louder than usual. He hauled himself out of bed and his head felt heavy. He then remembered with a shock the night before, and saw his front door standing wide open. Another sleepwalking incident? His meeting with Maisie was real enough, as the tea cups were still on the table.
He checked through his jacket pockets for the pages he had been given, but could find nothing. Had he dreamt his evening with the Indians? He started to frantically search the house but then he remembered that the gas lamps were off when he had returned home. Someone had entered the house in his absence. He checked his tanks. All his specimens were present save for the beetle. It seemed whoever had entered his house knew exactly what they were looking for.
A crunching of gravel outside and a car door slamming. Langley. The man turned up with the regularity of a cockroach in a kitchen.
“We missed you last night!” He called as he entered the house. Then “good God” followed by laughter as he appeared in the hall. Charles looked down. In his confusion upon rising he had forgotten to put on his trousers.
“I’ll just wait in the front room until you are decent.”
Charles quickly put on trousers and joined him.
“Look, Langley, you can’t keep barging in like this.”
“We were worried about you. Looks like we were right to be.” He raised an eyebrow and glanced pointedly at Charles’ trousers. The zip was undone.
“I hear there was another sleepwalking incident last night.”
“What! I went to a gathering with the tribe.”
“The tribe?” Langley was incredulous. “You were found wandering out at the point by one of the locals walking her dog at dawn. Thank god she recognised you and brought you back here. She says you could walk but were still asleep.”
“No!” Charles remembered Maisie’s face lit by the flames and her exhortation to have faith and remember. Perhaps she had guessed that Langley would try to cause him to question himself.
“Listen old sport. I spoke to Pinkerton. We are getting worried about you. What if you had wandered over the cliffs? Destroying civic property is one thing, but we can’t have you stumbling to your death in the fog.”
“I was not sleepwalking!” Charles was getting indignant. “But I have been burgled. Some papers the native Americans gave me last night are missing.”
“The Natives gave you?” Langley was bemused. “I warned you about them. They’ve got their own agenda. In any event the problem is solved. Pinkerton thinks it is best you go back to Cambridge within the month. We are not sure you are fully recovered from your bump on the head and the cold air here is not helping.”
“Stop patronising me!” Charles was shocked at himself.
Langley’s friendly expression melted in any instant, and his voice became low, almost threatening.
“It’s not your decision to make, old boy. The use of the house is at the absolute discretion of the college. And that discretion is no longer in your favour. I suggest you start packing up and keep your head down for the next month until we can arrange some transport to get you out of here.”
He turned to leave.
“You always were such a disappointment, Charles.”
The door slammed. Charles sat in misery in the gloomy front room, vaguely comforted by the faint scratching and rustling of his specimens. What would become of them? In the circumstances he doubted that the college would pay to ship them back. He poked a leaf forlornly at some stick insects which stubbornly refused to move. He had three weeks at the absolute most to solve this riddle, but without the pages or a specimen there was no breakthrough to be had. Any announcement he made would be met with incredulity.
He slept fitfully that night, his dreams full of insects crawling over his naked body. They tickled slightly, and it was then he had woken and noticed he had left his bedroom window ajar and the damp Narragansett fog had been blowing into the room.
He put on his dressing gown and wandered into Thaddeus’ study. He had already gone through the papers that Thaddeus had left, but those papers had been sorted by Langley and he was starting to think that Langley had good reason to withhold information. Could there be something in the study that Langley had missed? He took a wooden ruler and ran it behind and under furniture and fittings. Eventually he dislodged something which appeared to be an envelope and opened it. It contained a note written in ink in a shaky hand.
“If you are reading this I am already dead and you are either my murderer or in grave danger. There is a rotten business at the heart of this town, and people will stop at nothing to make sure it continues. I have bequeathed my house to the college in the hope that someone decent might finally uncover the horror. For me, it is too late, although a quick death is preferable to living any longer with the knowledge of this unspeakable madness.
It was signed
Charles was scared. More scared than when a rugby boot pushed his face into the mud during his first term at boarding school. More scared than when he had walked between the library desks at the University to tell a woman he loved her and suffered the shame of rejection. This was a fear that had seeped from the fog into his bones. He felt a cold sweat all over his body.
He went downstairs to draw comfort from his specimens and try to make a plan. At noon he heard John arrive to make a firewood delivery and went outside to question him.
Charles held Thaddeus’s note out to John in trembling hands and waited silently as the man read. At the end Charles looked at him and simply said, “You must have known. Why did you say nothing?”
John looked back very sadly. “We offered friendship to your ancestors and in return they took almost everything from us. They would seek to take the little we have left and destroy us entirely.”
“That is the nature of the white man.”
“In small quantities it has powerful healing properties. Abused it prolongs life but destroys the soul. That is why abuse is forbidden to my people. The beetle is sacred to us. When the white man first came we used the beetle to heal their wounds. They learned of its properties and sought to keep it for themselves.”
Charles felt a profound sadness and empathy. He knew the feeling of being belittled and exploited. Yet the love and concern he had received from the native Americans had awoken a strength he had not known he possessed. Love had displaced his feelings of shame.
John saw the emotions rising within him and smiled. “May the spirits help you and guide you.”
Charles felt oddly content as he waited by the fire later that evening. He was determined not to go back to a life of misery in Cambridge. He nursed a hot tea and waited. Sure enough, at seven thirty he heard Langley’s car outside.
Langley didn’t bother to knock.
“Still here?” Langley toppled over a stack of books on his way in. “And it seems, not even packed.”
“I was waiting for you and Pinkerton to make the arrangements.” Charles said meekly.
“Oh Charles.” Langley sighed deeply and leaned against the door frame. “Why couldn’t you just stick to your specimens? It would have saved so much trouble. We just wanted you to find them and give them to us: we couldn’t think of anyone who was likely to do that with as much single minded enthusiasm as you. We couldn’t have guessed that every fifty years even your life cycle seems to enter a mating season.”
“What really happened to Thaddeus?” Charles tried to keep his voice level.
“Ah. Thaddeus was also a disappointment.” Langley inspected his long fingers. “I could never understand why a successful man like him was more interested in helping the savages than joining our society. It was a shame, in the end. But we do what needs to be done.”
He turned to look at himself in the hallway mirror. “Not bad for a 150 year old, don’t you think?”
As Langley preened, something within Charles snapped. He was tired of being afraid. Tired of being the butt of people’s jokes. Tired of running away and hiding. Tired of Langley constantly questioning his reality.
Langley grinned into the mirror and ran a hand through his verdant hair, Charles saw his chance. He grabbed a glass tank of spiders from the top of a stack, hoisted it aloft and brought it down with all his strength onto the back of Langley’s head.
Langley collapsed onto the floor, unresponsive.
As Charles stood looking down at Langley’s body ringed with shards of broken glass, he felt another wave of foreign emotions. It was the first time in his fifty years he had stood up to a bully, and he felt nothing but relief and exhilaration.
Large black spiders, liberated from their glass prison, scuttled away from the body and hid under cracks in the old skirting boards and under dusty rugs.
The Lighthouse started its wail again, but between the wail there was another noise. He thought at first his remaining insects had been disturbed by events, but this was a bigger sound, like someone tilting an enormous tray of sand from side to side.
A wave of inky black beetles were making their way under the front door, along the hallway and into the living room.
He sat on the stairs and watched them flood through the ground floor of the house. They squeezed through cracks along the window frames and dropped through keyholes, their multiple legs and quivering feelers making a soothing chittering sound. They swarmed towards the cooling body of Langley, lying face up with blood matting his blonde hair and congealing in the nostrils of his aquiline nose. They buried into his ears and filled his mouth. His throat undulated slightly as the bodies of hundreds of beetles made their way down his windpipe and into his lungs. They crawled up the trousers and sleeves of his expensive tweed suit. Soon the chittering sound of their movements was replaced by the equally soothing sound, at least to the ears of Charles, of thousands of mandibles masticating his dead flesh.
At daybreak, as the beetles began their retreat, Charles went into the living room to inspect the scene. All that remained of Langley was his expensive suit encasing his bones. Charles bundled everything up trying not to look into the eye sockets of the skull. He wondered whether Langley’s unique departure meant his soul had now passed to the happy hunting ground of the native Americans. If so, he was certain that he would there receive his just reward. He smiled.
Outside it was still foggy and the lighthouse wailed. Charles made his way with his bundle along the rocky path from his house to the cliffs. The sound of the waves lashing the Point grew louder and as he reached the edge he tossed his bundle into their foamy depths.