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Oct. 17, 2004

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Some Things Keep Well: A Ballad for Halloween

With Halloween fast approaching, I decided it might be fun to do something a little different with this editoral.  I'm not a big fan of poetry but I always liked the ballads written by the Canadian balladeer, Robert Service.  You know the ones I mean -- The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew being my two favourites.  I once read that Service is the only poet in history to get stinking rich off his verse.  If true, it's nice to know.  I'd hate to think I was a fan of a loser.

Anyway, a while ago I wrote a Service-like ballad inspired somewhat by my interest in the Lost Franklin Expedition and the research I did for my non-fiction book, The Franklin Conspiracy (of which I am confident you have all gone out and bought your copy from -- right?  Right?).  Sir John Franklin, in case you don't know, set out to lead a two ship expedition into the unexplored Canadian arctic in 1845.  Neither ship was ever seen again, although many bodies were later discovered scattered over the shore of King William Island.  To this day, the mystery remains.  What happened?

My poem isn't about that expedition but rather about one of the many which were dispatched in search of the lost explorers during the years before the grisly remains were discovered on King William Island.  There.  That's about all the background you need.  Oh, that and --- you pronounce "Ultima Thule" as Ul-tim-a Thoo-lee.

But before we get to the ballad...

I've always wondered, when watching horror movies, how would someone really react if faced with the truly inexplicable?  Think about it.  How often have you snickered at the behaviour of the heroine, when confronting a supernatural terror, and sneered, "Yeah -- right!  That's not how I'd react."  Well, I think everyone, at some time in their lives, should, for just one precious moment, put their money where their mouth is.  For just one moment they should have to experience the impossible, the inexplicable.  Something that knocks all their comfortable beliefs into a cocked hat and renders all their notions of what is and what isn't real null and void.  I am speaking of a moment when you suddenly realize that, yes, there really are monsters under the bed.

I once experienced such a moment.

I was living with my brother and mother at the time.  The three of us had just spent the weekend hosting my sister, her husband and their children who were visiting and who had set out on the long drive home some hours before.  It was nearing midnight and I was getting ready for bed when I realized I had a question to ask my brother whose bedroom was, of course, down the hall. 

I climbed out of bed and stepped out into the hall.  Most of the house lights were off, naturally, except the light spilling from my brother's open doorway.  Let me emphasize -- the hallway was dark.  This fact no doubt contributed to the drama about to unfold.

Peering in through my brother's open doorway, I could see him lying in bed.  I could see his arm atop the blanket.  I could see all of him except his head, which was hidden by the corner of his desk.  Make no mistake -- I could see him clearly.

I knocked on the door.

Though he didn't get out of bed. or even move, I distinctly heard his voice.  "Yeah?  What is it?"

In that moment, I began to feel my universe unravelling.  I really did.  For, while it was distinctly his voice which had responded, the voice didn't come from my brother lying on his bed.  In fact, it seemed to have come from the pitch black doorway behind me, across the hall -- the computer room.

I don't recall what it was I said next, because my mind was racing a mile a minute trying to work out an explanation for this strange phenomenon.  Whatever it was I said, it caused my brother to speak again.  Now there could be no doubt at all.  His voice was coming from the computer room across the hall -- the pitch black computer room across the hall.  I stood there, heart racing, jaw dropping, my wide-eyed gaze cutting back and forth, back and forth, between the black doorway of the computer room to the figure of my brother still lying in bed.

Believe me, it can only have lasted a few seconds, but in those seconds, a dozen scenarios were dreamed up and rejected as I sought desperately to hold onto my sanity.  Which was my real brother -- the figure I could clearly see lying in his bed, or the source of the voice coming from the darkness in the room across the hall? They couldn't both be my brother.  But, if only one was my brother, then how to explain the other one?  Was it possible my sister or one of her family had stayed behind?  Did we have other visitors I didn't know about?  Could some crazy man have snuck into our house and passed out on my brother's bed?

But it didn't matter.  No matter how I tried to rationalize, at the back of my mind a voice kept whispering: "It's a monster, Blair.  You know it is.  A real honest to God monster.  Because everything you ever believed is wrong and there really are monsters there well and truly are and this monster's going to eat you and they'll find you lying out in the hall and think you died of a heart attack because that's how monsters do it that's how they have to do it because otherwise everyone would know they exist..."

Now, one other little detail which played its part in the unfolding drama was this.  That day my brother had seen his doctor for an ear infection for which the doctor had prescribed some drops.  My brother was required to drip this stuff into his ear, then keep it from running out.  So it was at that moment --  that precise moment -- as I felt myself barely clinging to my sanity, that a slouching, humanoid figure began to shuffle slowly out of the darkness of the computer room.  A figure slouching with its head weirdly slumped onto one shoulder.  A slouching, head-slumped, humanoid thing that kept speaking with my brother's voice!

I may have screamed.  I don't know. 

All I know is, at that moment, two things happened.  The humanoid thing entered the light from the bedroom allowing me to see it was my brother with his head slumped onto one shoulder.  And the figure in my brother's bed sat up -- and I saw it was just my mother.  Because my sister and her family had slept in her bedroom, my mother had slept in my brother's room during their visit.  Though they had left, she stayed in his room, planning on moving back to her own room the next day.  My brother had been sleeping in the computer room.  Simple.

Sure it's simple now.  But, at the time, I was so positive the figure in the bed was my brother, I simply didn't stop to recognize that I couldn't actually see his face.  Simple or not, the result is what matters.  And the result was that for a moment, I knew what it felt like to come face to face with the impossible, the inexplicable.  I knew what the horror movie hero must feel when he confronts a supernatural terror for which there can be no natural explanation.  I knew what it was to know with absolute know...

...the monsters are real.

Now, on with the ballad...


Copyright 2001 by Jeffrey Blair Latta

Some things keep well in the frozen hell that breasts
The Arctic sea.
The glacial cold like amber holds the
Ultima Thule.
The stone cairns last and, from the past, recall those
Who remain
Eternal guests, who'd sought to best the Land
God gave to Cain.

       *            *           *

The swirling snows beat fearsome blows upon
The beveled panes,
And webbed the glass with winter's mask, yet shrieked
And howled in vain.
While through the wind and midnight din, the distant
Churchbells' knell
Rang in with glee the century whose secrets
None could tell.

No doubt in distant parlours kissed brave lovers
At that call,
But not for me such revelry as relished
'Twas no disgrace - a butler's place was by
His master's side.
And yet I'd hoped to be encloaked and off
By eventide.

Once more that night, the casement white my gaze
A moment stayed,
As through the glass and blizzard's blast, I spied
A lonely shade.
Amidst the storm, his shadowed form seemed dark
With doom, and fey.
And when Sir Findley called me in, I gladly
Turned away.

My master in his chamber dim upon
His four-post bed,
Seemed lost 'neath quilted sheets and tilted cap
Upon his head.
His features wan and ghastly drawn, his flesh
A pallid shell,
"Please, Jacques,"  he groaned, a quaking tone,  "Please stoke
The hearth fire well."

Confused at best by this behest; uncertain
To comply,
I eyed the bright hot embers’ light and gently
Asked him why.
"Your sleep perhaps eludes your grasp, if Jacques
May be so bold?"
He shook his head and weakly said, "Not sleep, Jacques -
Just the cold."

To argue this would be amiss, and yet
Although the storm
Was chill without, could be no doubt, his chamber
Still was warm.
But just as told, I fed the coals with logs
Of fresh-split yew.
The hungry flames to fierce life came while smoke
Surged up the flue.

And then when sure the hearth flames were a fair
impressive blaze,
I rose at last to find my master lost
Within a daze.
"So long ago,"  he whispered, "so as like
Another's tale,
With Franklin lost for five years past - in 'fifty
We set sail.”

"Aboard the good bark Solace would we ply
The Arctic east,
To bring him back or, failing that, bring back
His bones, at least.
Across the ocean to the coast of barren,
Grey Greenland;
'Cross Baffin Bay we cut our way - close-
reefed and slow we ran.

"With dread-filled awe, such things we saw as bergs
Reared in our track.
In Barrow Strait blue ice pans scraped our prow
And forced us back.
'Til here at last our ship stuck fast within
The living ice.
The leads, they closed, while hummocks rose and squeezed
Us like a vice.

"The midnight sun did seem to shun and, callous,
Pass us by.
Indeed the midday sun soon did as well
Forsake the sky.
Such darkness then as ne’er men nor women
Ere had known!
Eternal night; no end in sight -
In all the world, alone.

"As time dragged on and still no dawn to cheer
Our flagging crew,
Some men went mad while scurvy had its pleasure
With a few.
The dark, the chill, so many ill!  Yet one
There was, at least,
Who seemed immune against the doom which ground
Us in its teeth.

"Poor Tom McClure fought to endure for one
Bold pledge he'd made:
For wife alone, he'd make it home - for her
He'd spurn the grave.
I hardly know why I did so begrudge 
This lovers' bond.
But jealousy spoke soft to me and, smiling,
Urged me on.

"I cursed his name and, to my shame, his wife's faith
Cast in doubt.
And, for this lapse, my face he slapped and grimly
Called me out.
A duel then?  ‘Twixt gentlemen?  A duel
It would be!
Twelve paces, shots from twin flintlocks; the place?
The frozen sea.

"My second was the purser 'cause the man
At least could stand.
My challenger, poor Tom McClure, would lend
Himself a hand.
Down from our bark onto the dark and tortured
Iceworm's lair;
We calmly paced a level space with space
Enough to spare.

"Our uniforms could ne'er keep warm our bones,
We learned in time;
Both buckled shoes and cock'd hats grew too heavy
'Neath the rime.
In starlit night, Aurora's light gazed down
And, as it were,
Seemed most impressed by England's best in their
Affaire d'honneur.

"A kerchief raised, the purser gave a nod and loosed
The cloth.
The howling wind with guile stepped in and bore
Our signal off.
But still as one, we aimed our guns and death
Spoke in my hand.
And yet mine missed while his gun hissed and fizzled
In the pan.

"Another try was his and I might then
And there have died.
But to my shot, which echoes caught, the North
Herself replied.
The ice beneath our frost-bit feet gave forth
A thunderous sound,
And, groaning, heaved whilst ebon leads encircled
Us around.

"The purser fast had made it past the ink black
Yawning crack,
But wider still it spread until we feared
We'd not get back.
With gun in hand, half mad, I ran - and madder
Still my crime;
Poor Tom McClure I struck - quite sure, for both 
There wasn't time."

Sir Findley seemed to fight his dream, but still
Adaze to see,
Through new snowfall o'er Montreal, the distant
Northern Sea.
"That cruel cold makes young men old,"  he spoke
In fading tones.
"I struck that man because the land had gotten
In my bones.

"We saw him twice upon the ice, a prisoner
Of the tide.
Too far away for us to save -  Please God,
Believe we tried!"
The flicker in the hearth grew dim, as lost
In guilt he lay.
He frowned and said, "His wife is dead - Last night
She passed away."

He seemed perplexed and when he next bespoke
I was to learn, 
"These decades past right 'til the last she'd prayed 
For his return."
In his distress, I thought it best to leave
Unbanked his fire;
So, with "Adieu", I could but to my own
Warm bed retire.

Some hours more, I heard a door slam closed
And, in the night,
Concerned, I sped to find his bed a most
Disturbing sight.
The fire, grown old, was dark and cold, but not
So cold as he;
Though white with death, upon his chest, no wound
That I could see.

Yet on the floor beside the door, there lay
An old flintlock,
Smoke curling from the ancient gun, ice melting
On the stock.
Then quick again I reached the panes, and 
Fleetingly espied
That lonely shade midst flurries fade
With honour satisfied.
         *              *               *

Some things keep well in the frozen hell that breasts
The Arctic Sea.
The glacial cold like amber holds the
Ultima Thule.
The stone cairns last and, from the past, recall those
Who remain
Eternal guests, who'd sought to best the Land
God gave to Cain.

Happy Halloween!!!

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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