Willie wrapped his arms around the massive stone crock and dropped to his haunches, and with a guttural grunt, wrenched the stone crock a few inches out of the muck. Still holding onto the crock, he scuttled backward, the effort of hauling it having disrupted his balance.
This was ridiculous. Why even bother moving these things? It was unlikely they were in the way, though knowing Barnabas he wanted them moved if only because he wanted his estate in order. May as well see what was in them, he reflected, as he stood on legs shaking from exertion, and dug in his pockets until he found a cigarette and match. Barnabas didn't like him smoking, and detested it within the property, proclaiming modern cigarettes were acrid poison.
Fuck it, he thought, as he drew in a lungful of smoke, and cast his eyes around the half dozen stone crocks. They ranged from holding ten pounds to well over a hundred, and nearly all of them were full of one thing or another. Several were nearly fossilized root vegetable containers, although a 20 pound crock held a black lump that by the smell was the remains of fat.
The one Willie was trying to edge out of its place was a hundred pounds, and seemed sealed with a mixture of sand and wax. As he smoked, he cast around in his tool box, until he found a hammer and chisel. He took one last drag on the cigarette and flicked it into the humid darkness of the subbasement, and then reflected he would probably have to go find it before the day was out, or else Barnabas probably would.
Dispirited, he wrenched the chisel around in the seal, until he saw chunks of it break off and fall into the depths below. Weird. He unearthed his flashlight and aimed the beam into the belly of the crock. As he leaned over the opening, he caught a whiff of something foul, smelling of rot and decay. His gorge rose instinctively, and he staggered back, and retched over the bricks underfoot. Thankfully nothing came up, but he could feel his stomach roiling, and he knew that unless he got to clean air the next heave would make more of a mess.
Willie scrambled up the slippery stone stairs, nearly planting face first a few times on the steps, clambering until he found a thin, welcoming stream of daylight. He pushed himself out of the cellar door, trying to take a gasping lungful of the spring air. A faint smell of the contents of the crock remained on his clothes, wafting up, and he neatly deposited the meager contents of his lunch near a clump of daffodils.
Disgusting, he reflected, both about the crock and himself. He would have to get a pail of water later to dilute it. He glanced around the clear day, suddenly struck by the budding trees and bird song. Incredible. It was like coming out of a bad dream and into reality. He glanced back over his shoulder to the yawning steps below him, and decided he had time for another cigarette. Barnabas had relegated the entire afternoon for him to clear the crocks out of the sub basement, and another cigarette to stave off the trauma of their contents, he felt, was well deserved.
He planted his butt on the cement step of the back stairs, the mortar worn down so much that he could see the smooth river pebbles used by the original layers to add structure. He smoked, and breathed in clean air, and listened to bird song in the quiet afternoon, until he felt the smoldering tip if the cigarette reach his fingers. He smiled ruefully, and ground it out under the toe of his work shoes. He brushed ash and grime from his shins and stood, walking back into the house.
A cup of water would see him through. He hadn't had time to get groceries for the past few days, and the can of soup that remained in the larder was to be his dinner. A few cups of the cold well water would stave off hunger. As he passed through the sitting room, he noted that it was getting to be close to 2:30. Damn.
He hovered over the new sink he had installed, a small hand sink set in a corner and well away from the massive ceramic tub sink, with its wrought iron pump handle. It still worked, Willie had determined a week into residing at the Old House, but was far too impractical for a minimally working house. It had been a long time since the Collins estate had generated enough dishes or vegetable scrubbing to require a tub sink.
He spotted the pot of coffee that remained on the pot belly cooking stove, and with a happy start checked the contents. Enough for a bare half cup, and enough to get him through lugging crocks out of that pit of a basement. Though time started to weigh heavy on him, and as he swallowed the few mouthfuls of the acidic black liquid, he knew he hadn't made enough progress in the project. Back to it.
He pattered back down the steps, taking a preemptive lungful of air before going down the last few stairs, in case it still swarmed with the miasma out of the big crock. It definitely had a funk down there, but not nearly as bad as the first few minutes that had chased him out. Still, the smell made his eyes water, and he grabbed several of the smallest crocks and beat a hasty retreat up the stairs to strategize.
As he hunkered over the ancient ash pit outside, well away from the house, pounding the bottom of the old crock to loosen the contents, he considered the problem of the weight and contents of the biggest crocks. Even empty, they must have weight close to fifty pounds. If they could hold a hundred pounds, their total weight would easily come close to Willie's own weight.
He blinked, stopping in his tracks. The last time he knew his own weight was a handful of years ago, when the stevedores at a shipping yard needed a counterweight on a line. The smallest guy was Willie, clocking in at about 155. A rattle and then a thump brought Willie out of his reverie, and he sneered at the blackened lump of organic material that lay on the yellow spring grass, having fallen out of the pot. He swallowed against the rush of saliva that preceded his nausea.
When had he gotten so squeamish? He recalled himself, dead-eyed with exhausted, gutting fish alongside Jason as their trawler headed back to port. Probably lack of food, Willie reflected, as he surveyed the three small and midsize pots he had unearthed from the basement.
Well. That just left one 40 pound pot, one 80 pound crock, and the hundred pound crock. There was no way, he knew, he could get the largest crock without some kind of pulley system, and as he hauled up the 40 pound crock, he cast about for a solution. He was so wrapped up in thought that he only realized the closeness to dusk when he hauled the 80 lbs crock past the doorstep.
Shit. Barnabas was going to be pissed that the candles weren't lit. Willie stopped, straightening to stretch out the aching muscles of his back, and then glanced down himself. In spite of his apron, the job had been a lot messier than his usual fix-it jobs. His pants were coated in sludge and grime, and his arms and shirtsleeves were similarly blackened. He fruitlessly tried to brush off the worst of it, and then went into the kitchen to attack himself with a scrub brush and water. Hovering over a knee drawn up on one of the kitchen chairs, he could hear the mantel clock chime 5:30. He was really cutting it close for time.
Abandoning his beautification, he snatched matches from one of the kitchen drawers, hearing his breath too high, too fast. He could only prepare for the worst of the creature's rage, and have some distant hope he was wrong.
He had lit the hallway candles, and was halfway through the sitting room candles, when he heard the deep, sonorous tones of the creature from the doorway. "What are you doing, Willie?"
In spite of being on edge for his return for the past several hours, the fact he could never quite predict when the creature would appear behind him always unnerved him. A startled gasp was dragged from him as he whipped around, his fair hair dropping over his eyes. He reached up to push it off his forehead, stammering a reply, "S-Sorry I'm a bit late with the candles, Barnabas, the basement took me a bit longer than I expected."
Barnabas had moved closer, much taller and broader than Willie, in a way that made him reflect on how much better of a living the creature must have had when he in fact had been alive. How did you get to be so tall 200 years ago? Willie, small and slender from a hard childhood and years of neglect, always found his small size a fighting point. Now, with this thing looming over him, it just didn't seem fair.
Willie had stood, learning a while back that Barnabas detested it when Willie, as he called it, grovelled like a dog. He nervously brushed dust and the remnants of basement grime from his hands, and glanced down himself, noting the still soaking spots where he had tried to launder his clothes while still wearing them. He hoped Barnabas wouldn't, though it was unlikely. There seemed to be an internal checklist the creature went through when assessing the state of the house when he rose, and Willie's state seemed to be one of them.
He glanced back up to catch the slight sneer of disdain on the creature's face. Then, he asked, "And how did you fare in the project? I trust you were able to at least remove the urns from the cellar."
Willie turned back to the candles, trying to hide the budding panic on his face, trying to quash it in his voice. He lit another match, and brought it to the taper. "A-all but one. The 100-pound crock. I gotta rig up a system to haul it out, I can't do it by hand."
A slightly impatient, frustrated sigh from the man, but at least it wasn't the frozen silence of disbelief and mounting rage. "Very well. I want it out of there by tomorrow." Clearly it wasn't terribly pressing, so Willie figured he wasn't going to use it for a flock of imprisoned villagers. It would have been a humorous thought if it hadn't been depressingly couldn't predict how insane Barnabas was going to take things.
Returning to the memory of the distasteful nature of his task, he glanced over his shoulder at the dead man, as it stood in front of a fire it could not feel, and glanced over an antique book. "What was in those things, besides?"
Barnabas raised his head and raised an eyebrow at the reproachful tone, but his response was mild. "Winter stores, no doubt, though I couldn't guess at their age. Were you able to deposit their contents?"
A recollection of the disgusting contents of the biggest crock made Willie swallow back a sneer of disgust. "Everything but the big crock. What's in that thing?"
Barnabas looked back down to his book, though Willie couldn't tell he was thinking. A few moments of silence passed before Barnabas glanced back up, eyebrows knitted together. Finally, he said, "Was it stoppered with wax?"
Willie couldn't stifle his reaction of distaste and dismay. "Yes."
Barnabas' eyes slipped closed, and his face seemed to shutter. This was somehow more terrifying than the rage- the recognition of what? Loss?
The undead man finally returned his gaze to Willie, and there was a strange look there. Was that pity? Sadness? What the hell was going on? Willie was frozen, horrified. "What?"
"I had forgotten." The dead man's tone was so despondent that it only served to ratchet up Willie's fear.
a desperate, tearing sound had crept into Willie's voice as he took a few steps closer. "What? You forgot -what-?" Because by now Willie was almost certain that whatever was in that crock was going to affect him directly.
The man was trading a long, thoughtful gaze with Willie, before he shook his head and sighed. "The cattle. We had slaughtered and preserved some of the cattle before we realized they were sick."
Willie's face twisted in disgust. He had been handling 200 year old beef? Wait- "If that was 200 years ago, then whatever they died from probably died too."
Barnabas looked at him curiously. "I beg your pardon?"
Willie stopped, nonplussed, before he realized the man had come before a time when bacteria, parasites, and viruses made people sick. They probably thought a witch had cursed the cattle or something. Willie shrugged, trying to tamp down his relieved smile. "They probably died from a bacteria or something. The bacteria are dead after all this time too."
The undead man's eyes flashed, as though he were warring between indignation that Willie were making something up, or uncertainty at his own ignorance. "A bacteria?"
"Yeah." Willie thought, trying to mentally unearth any volumes of medicine or biology in the house. "There's probably some kind of book about them here, somewhere."
"Find it, and bring it to me. I want to be sure none of the contents of the basement will harm Collinsport."
Willie stifled a disbelieving snort. He had been on plague ships that were refused port of entry, while the men lay suffering and dying, though those had been things like the flu. Whatever had been afflicting cattle 200 years ago in a small Maine estate was unlikely to have survived, or even pose a threat to a small modern town several miles away. 'Sure thing, Barnabas." Though he appreciated the break from heavy work of looking for a book.
It took him about an hour of combing through the frankly obscene amount of books the Collinses had deposited here for storage, before he had located several manuals of varying publication dates. He found Barnabas still in the sitting room, still seeming unnerved. He handed the books wordlessly to the man.
Barnabas treated him to a long look, one that flicked up and down Willie's form, as he took the volumes, almost as if he were appraising Willie for something. It was kind of weird.
Willie took a few steps away, and motioned back toward the stairs. "If you don't need anything else, I was gonna get working on restoring that cherrywood table."
Barnabas was silent, turning over the books in his hands, and a lightning brief flash of something like regret passed through his face, before he turned away from Willie. "Yes, you may go."
Willie turned, rolling his shoulders to shake out the tension of hauling pots around all day, before Barnabas' voice stopped him. "Willie."
The young man turned, wordlessly watching the other man across the expanse of dark room.
"Leave the pot there for now, until I tell you that it may be removed."
Willie shrugged, nodded. He felt he was batting a thousand tonight; he had avoided any lecturing or punishment for his tardiness. He was going to count this a win.