By Tom Sheehan
Old Scott’s Mill on the Saugus River, rebuilt in 1847 after a fire and a long-time employer of hard workers at wool and leather goods and lastly boot protection for soldiers in Viet Nam, had given off odd sounds since the day it closed down, a dozen years earlier in a new century. Now it gave off a sense of passage, spooky passage, which none of us three pals could measure or pinpoint its source.
All the way back to the last holiday we had saved a cache of fireworks, my pals, Sinagna, Injun Joe and Charlie B, each of us twelve years old within three days of each other. “Pals to the end,” we had said, squirreling away the fireworks in Sinagna’s Aunt Lil’s barn leaning from one century into another. Many times we were afraid those hidden prizes would explode in their secret hideaway, our want for noise and excitement so strong, at times like hunger tantrums. But we had saved them for a special occasion. “Promise made is promise kept,” Sinagna had said on Veterans’ Day, his voice hard as wire, though the tantrum pummelled in his gut.
So Sinagna and Injun Joe and Charlie B, and me coming late as usual, came together on the special night before the national holiday, and crept up on the backside of Scott’s Mill, closed tight as a fighter’s fist, sitting there beside the slow Saugus River. It was a mill as marked as time itself, whose existence seemed to transcend the town and its beginnings. Now and then it became a shell of nacre the way an early bronze moon could make it eerie and distant and out of this world. It was a piece of another time, another dimension, for none of us could begin to imagine how much workers’ sweat had seeped into the floors for parts of two centuries.
One box and two bags of choice explosives, stashed away for ninety slow-as-snails days, figured in our arms as something Fort Sumter or another historic battle site might have set free. Tonight there’d be a new war on the silence clasping the mill, on the eerie darkness that moonless nights allowed to cling to the mill, and on whatever lurked in it or around it. We had no idea of what was in the mill.
Lighting our sticks of punk, we stood on the bank of the river and the smell coasted thickly in the night as if an old barn had been turned inside out. Once, earlier, Injun Joe had explained that his grandfather affirmed that punk was made from camel dung. Each of them inhaled the acrid and known and nostalgic smell as it fingered memories of past celebrations filled with “oohs,” and “ahs,” and “ohs.”
All our memories said time was eternal, spilled on a level coming to us and moving away from us, but tonight disruption was the game. Disruption and noise and affirmation of the minor manhood working its endless way down in our genes.
The Saugus River ran away at the foot of the huge red brick building, the calm waters swishing slowly against the cluttered rock dam site at the foot of the red brick building. Above us, ranging out of trees, darkness came plodding on, the near silence moving across our skins asking to be known. Sinagna’s Aunt Lil once had said, “Darkness comes on like a beggar man to close the end of day.”
“It’s only brick,” Sinagna said, his natural spirit bucking up his current assessment. His hand touched the side of the mill, its doors now closed for as long as we’d had been alive; a huge, ghostly creature of a building, windows boarded up, doors frozen in place with huge spikes; eyes that could not see, mouths that could not speak. There was, however, something else in the touch of that stone, something mossy, something growing, something without a voice, but threatening us.
We had known forever that it was there.
Sinagna, as fearsome as any boy we knew, could feel the presence of something if only in the touch of the stone. Perhaps a creature, but not quite visible; it might not breathe, but it was there. Yet no one, none of our friends or neighbors had ever been hurt. It was what we had counted on, in our perilous argument.
“Yuh,” Charlie B said, feeling the fuzz on the back of his neck with a threat of electricity in it, “so how come they see a glow of flames every Fourth of July. At midnight. From the only window that’s not boarded up. The one way up in the peak out front. Tell me how that gets done. All the floors have been taken out. The whole place is nothing but a shell. So how come so many people have seen a red glow in that window way up there? Even my father said he saw it, expected the place was about to burn down.”
His twelve-year-old face was squeezed into his own questions, his mouth still pursed, his chin and that pursed mouth still asking for an explanation. The three of us were always blue-eyed; now, at this juncture, we were dark-eyed.
Sinagna bristled as only Sinagna could bristle, his jaw prominent, his eyes steely, his breath measured. “How should I know?” he said. “I ain’t been in there. I ain’t seen anybody go in or come out, ever. Maybe it’s like a locked-up Aurora Borealis, like it was caught in there the very first time it was caught. Something crazy, like that. Or a bum gets in there every year to play tricks on us. Like having his own routine. But we promised we’d light it up one way or another. And I’m all for getting inside somehow, anyhow. Maybe plopping off one of the plywood boards over the windows. We all promised.” He was standing tall, asserting some kind of authority that prior bravery had granted him.
“I didn’t say anything about not doing it. I’m not yellow!” Charlie B was breathing heavy as he spoke. And the darkness deepened and a small breath of a wind stirred in the near leafless trees and Charlie B froze straight up as he heard a soft moan come on the small breath of air. It rode over the thick smell of burning punk.
“We’re not alone,” he said, his hand gripping Sinagna’s arm so hard his fingernails dug into the camouflaged material of Sinagna’s fatigue jacket. He wore it in honor of a lost friend from the other end of the street, lost in Burma, in the war.
“It’s the wind, Charlie,” Sinagna said. “Nothing to it. Just the wind. It’s a midnight wind. Aunt Lil says every wind twisting around the mill has its own voice.”
And then, right then on that night, at or near the stroke of midnight, as if commanded by a presence, an omnipotence, the plywood cover over a peaked window high above our heads pulled away from the window frame with the shriek of nails being yanked. It fell and smashed on the rocks below.
We froze in place, our breaths caught in our throats. And the yearly and eerie light came at last from that high window, a red moving glow the way flames lick at campfire wood. Slow. Sultry. Expectant. Then it glowed a sudden blue, then a red and a green glow. And the moan came again, and faint and distant music trooped in with it as if drums and fifes were playing on the side of Vinegar Hill and were bouncing off the mill’s walls, and firelight swept against the high window like a new fire banked in a furnace. It was music and it was just a step up from silence, and it was so light, so distant, so feathery, so winged, it might not have been. “Now,” it said in an unspoken voice. We were not sure of anything.
Charlie B dropped his bag of fireworks, his in-taken breath merely a small echo riding his body. Right down to his new sneakers he shook. Injun Joe held his box as if it were his last bullet. Something was standing against us in the night and we’d have to protect ourselves. Sinagna, jawboned Sinagna, expeditionary leader, his nerves cut and frayed only a bit, from his glowing punk lit and heaved a long-wicked 2-inch salute at the nearest plywood window.
“There!” he said. “There!” The enemy to be accosted and surmounted.
The explosion ripped into the silence, and the sudden flare of light lit the hooded window and disappeared just as quickly as it had come. The overhead light leaped again, the window suddenly alive in red and blue and then an orange glow. Drums, old drums, beat somewhere, an aged tattoo of drums, a line of drums in a long forgotten parade, a rolling echo from a lost or glorious battle. At first we thought the drums came from Vinegar Hill, and then we realized that they came from inside the mill, off its walls. And fifes came slowly with the drums, and the flames glowed brighter in the high window. And a discipline, each of us noticed, seemed to come with the drums and the fifes, a unity, regulated though faint, all as if under orders, commanded.
And then, with a sudden and profound silence, the light went out. Darkness fell again, more than a beggar this time; a darkness full of time and lineal pursuits, a darkness of summonses and declarations from an insurmountable place, a darkness reaching out to touch us. We shivered in anticipation more than fear. We were present at something unknown but pronounceable, ghostly but real. From Vinegar Hill again it seemed to come, the faint and distant call of mystic notes riding on a wind, riding a thermal the eye never sees; intelligent notes, bugle notes, timeless notes.
Sinagna leaped from his kneeling position. “Listen!” he commanded, his voice stern, demanding, the barking voice of an infantry line sergeant. “Listen!”
Overhead the red glow came back in the high round window near the peak of the mill. And the notes sounded clear and distinct. And they came from inside the mill, not from outside, but from inside Scott’s Mill.
Those were timeless notes coming at us.
With messages in them.
Charlie B and Injun Joe reached for small recognition of the notes, but it was Sinagna who knew them. “That’s Assembly that’s playing. I heard it on Tim’s web site. That’s Assembly. I heard it on a web site. I downloaded a whole mess of them, but that’s Assembly.” In his voice was heard a definite change, as though he might have snapped to attention in the ranks.
Mesmerized, we heard more bugle calls, some Sinagna knew and some he didn’t. He was not flustered. “Call to Arms,” he said proudly, listening again, nodding his head, “and Boots and Saddles” a few moments later, and then, still distant notes coming to them, “First Call,” and “Call to Quarters,” and finally, the sounds now down inside us, touching at our souls, standing at attention in the dark, he said in that deepening voice, “To the Colors.”
Our blood froze. We were rapt and enraptured, transplanted but in place, something crying to get out of us, to have a voice of its own. Each of us felt it in his own way, yet somehow acknowledged the sharing.
The door of Scott’s Mill popped open right beside us, and the faint and still far-reaching notes came to them, and horse hooves tromping on hard ground and the clumping of hundreds and hundreds of boots on packed gravel. We looked inside, amazed, frightened, and a line of horse troops, grey and blue cavalry, passed in review, eyes-righting us, moving past us in formation. Others came clothed in a dozen or so different uniforms, Johnny Reb grey, Yankee blue, Army O.D., Airman’s blue and Sailor blue, dress Marine and fatigue Marine, war on top of endless war, time on top of immemorial time. They were illustrations of all wars, and all losses, and the ranks were thick and heavy and dense with the souls of innumerable warriors.
From a post in the ranks, well back in the ranks, a deep and resonant voice came to us. “We’re coming home, boys. We’re coming home and we don’t have to go off anywhere anymore. Not this night. Not ever. We’re all the ones who never came home, but we’ve been waiting for you. We’ve tried every Fourth of July for years. It’s only on the Fourth of July that we can come home.”
From a limitless distance, evoked and called at one side of the mill’s interior, they came, a long endless march of men, shoulders back, heads up, coming home after their own eternity; Gettysburg, Stone Mountain, San Juan, Chateau Thierry, Omaha Beach, Kwajalein, Chosin Reservoir, Heartbreak Ridge, Dak To, deserts and jungles too numerous to mention, all the odd points of the fiery Earth, and all the harsh graves of that eternity.
“Eyes right,” the deep voice said, commanding, and then, as if stating a memorial of their own kind, added, “We did it for the young un’s and for the old-timers, too.”
Sinagna stood as tall as he’d ever stand. He motioned us to attention as new notes came on the thin, cool air. “Retreat,” he whispered, the huskiness suddenly at home in his voice, arrived manhood in his voice, spine upright, nerves in place.
“That’s Retreat,” he said again, his voice still deeper, resonant. The sombre notes carried for long moments and the line of troops and horsemen stood at attention, just the way Sinagna and we stood our ground.
And then, more distant than any call ever heard before or ever afterward, spilling first out of a summer darkness and then out of a resounding radiance hitting us straight one, the smell of burning punk as acrid as spent gunpowder crawling in the air, a lone and distant bugle’s notes came riding another feathery and light thermal from the very ends of time.
“You’ll not forget this night, will you, boys?” And the deep voice was gone and the troopers were gone and the horsemen were gone, and the lights drifted off to night again, and a single and momentary note from a still more distant bugle hung itself on the pinnacle of air as Taps ended the most memorable holiday of all time.
Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951. Books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; Collection of Friends; From the Quickening. eBooks: Korean Echoes, The Westering, (nominated for National Book Award); from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum (NHL mystery), Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment,and An Accountable Death. Work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Copperfield Review, Cahoodaloodaling, Literary Orphans, Ocean Magazine, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, 3 AM Magazine, Nazar Look, Eastlit and Rope & Wire Magazine. He has 24 Pushcart nominations. In the Garden of Long Shadows published by Pocol Press, 2014, to be followed by The Nations, about Native Americans.