31 Days of Halloween: All Hallow’s Eve
We met for drinks and food at Sky Bar Gourmet Pizza on the fourth floor of the Crescent Hotel, me and my Voynich Manuscript connection. I’d known her for some time and always enjoyed her company. She was very pretty and scholarly, having studied medieval literature and getting her masters in English folktales and finally doing what ultimately amounted to a controversial dissertation on magic in the middle ages and focusing on grimoires. She ordered an Electric Therapy and I ordered a Miller Lite and stared out across the hills. It was dark but not particularly cold. We’d not hit a sufficient cold snap since summer and even now the evening temps were in the low seventies. The Ozark color change normally spectacular, the lack of cold now relegating the brilliant variegation to muted browns and reds and yellows.
Across the way I noticed the statue of the Ozarks and muttered, “Christ,” and when she asked me what was wrong, slightly alarmed, I pointed to the hilltop statue. In all his marble glory, the Son of God stood over the treetops on the opposite hill, arms stretched wide.
I smiled at the joke, hoping she’d smile too. The waiter appeared.
“Know what you want?”
“Pizza,” she said with a grin.
I specified, and ordered something with rum in it. The waiter asked if I wanted a Mojito and I said I’d never had one and didn’t want to start now, then had him bring a rum and coke.
“So this manuscript,” I said.
“It’s out there,” she shrugged, and took a sip of her drink. “I got a room here tonight. Booked up, but I got one.”
“You told me you knew how to get it. You said if we met…”
“I know where it is. I didn’t say I could get it. It’s on the internet. Why not just use that?”
“It isn’t accurate enough. Things are lost when you don’t have the print copy in hand. That’s what I’m told anyway.”
The deal with the Voynich Manuscript is that it is centuries old. But the writing in it is indecipherable and the illustrations are incongruent with known life. Countless scholars and linguists have failed to interpret the scratchings that serve as words and only guesses can be made to identify the flora and fauna and other diagrams represented on the pages.
She looked at me quizzically. She had this thing, when she was studying something, she’d tilt her head. “That’s what you were told? Why do you want it, really?”
I’d told her originally that I had a book collector who was sure he could translate it who wanted to rent it for a lot of money, and that had sustained her for a while. But now, when she was questioning me, it wasn’t from any deviation to my story, but the desperation in my voice, the need for my friend to get what I’d promised him, and the realization with her flippancy that I’d failed.
I said, “In every discoloration and minor crease in the fold, in every unobtrusive watermark and intentional scuff of each folio, there is a purpose meant to help decode the text. Such things can be hidden on the internet, or in facsimiles, or in copies. Copies and facsimiles lie because they are artificial. The internet lies, because it is artificial, and it flourishes and it grows in its artificiality.”
“Poetic,” she said. She lowered her gaze to the table for a time, as if in consideration. “I don’t have it,” she said finally, admitting that which I already knew. “But I know where it is, or I have an idea.”
“Great. Then I’ll come with. We can…”
She shook her head. “If I’m right, if it’s where I think it is, then you wouldn’t be of any help. Let me try; it’s obviously important to you. I’ll keep you informed. I promise.”
I wanted to go, and if it were anyone else, I would have insisted, but we had a history, and I trusted her.
The waiter brought out the pizza and served us each our first slices. She ordered another drink and we ate in silence, polishing off enough pizza to regain our sobriety. I sat staring at the Christ statue, the food and drink settling into every nook and cranny of my gullet, when she spoke again.
“Ever been on the ghost tour here?”
“No,” I lied.
The tour was seventy-five minutes long. It began on the fourth floor, across the hall from the pizza restaurant. We paid $23.00 bucks each and filtered into a room that had been turned into a museum of sorts. We sat in two of the two dozen folding chairs and watched the others fill up. After a brief history lesson about the hotel’s construction in 1886, we emerged from the museum room and began the tour.
On the fourth floor over by the elevator, a small child fell to her death. The railing there still stood at the original Victorian height which was too short for modern Americans. I’m just over six feet and I had to bend to rake my fingertips over the polished mahogany. Apparently the child toppled either through the railing or over it and fell all the way to her death to the basement floor below, a floor below the lobby, five floors in all.
She can be seen, at times, next to the beds of the sleeping on this floor. She can be felt trying to hold the hands of men – a daddy’s girl – or tugging waist level at the shirts of adults whose attention she craves.
That was at the south end. We were told that on the south end, when the hotel had been converted to a cancer hospital, that the sickest patients had slept here.
On the north end, a ghost believed to be either the head nurse or head bookkeeper can be seen struggling for the key to get in her room. A fastidious, cantankerous woman who didn’t always approve of the guests, she’s been known to pack bags and stow them against the door of tenants she didn’t approve.
The north end of the third floor was an annex for servant’s quarters built after the rest of the hotel. Later, during the cancer hospital days, it was where the sickest patients went to suffer and die.
The Cancer Hospital.
Dr. Norman Baker was a doctor through self-proclamation only. He was a charlatan and an opportunist, and in 1937, found the Crescent Hotel offered up for cheap, and bought it “for a song and a dance.” Promising up a cure for cancer, and promising jobs for every citizen in town, he proffered his services to all who’d come, and really, how many people died at his hand is unknown to this day.
A conspiracy theorist and one who distrusted medical professionals, Dr. Baker promised a cure from cancer in a concoction derived from nothing more than a useless mix of watermelon seed, brown corn silk, alcohol, and carbolic acid. He’d inject this concoction directly into the tumors without anesthesia, so the pain was immense. A believer in holistic medicine, he’d often tell the patients to “will” themselves to get better. His scheme was much more nefarious.
He’d determine first which of his patients had families and which didn’t. For those that didn’t, he’d have them sign a form that willed all of their property to him. For those with families, he’d have his patients sign the bottom of three letters.
He’d continue his treatment till the patient died, and then he’d send out the first of the three letters. In it, he’d ask for more money, promising the treatment was working, but saying he needed more money because the treatment was proving costly. The second letter reiterated the same notion. He’d send the second letter out a month or so after the first, and so two months or so after the patient died. The third letter would be sent after money had been received from the first two, and ideally after more time had passed.
The third letter stated that despite all his efforts, the patient had passed. It would ask for more money to ship the body back to the family, or promised as an alternative to dispose of the remains in a respectful manner free of charge. The thing is, the amounts asked for in each of these letters was tailored to the disclosed finances of the patient, so that by the time the third letter came around, the family funds were already quite sufficiently depleted. Most asked that Baker inter the body himself.
An on-site crematorium was used for this purpose, and there still exists a small room in the basement where the bodies were stored twenty-six deep, when stacked correctly.
Upon its founding in the late 1880’s, Eureka Springs had around 15,000 people camping on and around the two facing hills. Nowadays the town houses some two to three thousand people. In Baker’s day, it was probably closer to this modern census. Nowadays, one funeral home stays busy enough. But at the time of the cancer hospital, the town employed three full time funeral homes and the hotel had — on site — a crematorium. How many bodies were burned, the number cannot be known.
Eventually, the federal government indicted Norman Baker on mail fraud for identifying himself as a doctor. By the time he was released from prison, the Crescent had an owner no longer and had fallen into disrepair, and as a final bit of irony, Baker died in his seventies after a short battle with brain cancer.
After it was a luxury resort and hotel – its title when it was first built – it was turned into a girl’s college from 1908 to 1932. The second president of the college, Mr. Richard R. Thompson, MA, did everything he could to secure the purity of the college. His strictness ensured that lights out occurred at the same time, and no boys were allowed upstairs. But the girls who attended this school, studying real and serious subjects like language, the Arts, business, and nursing, were also from the wealthiest and most prominent of Arkansas families. When the boys came to visit, the girls would sneak them up to their rooms by lowering a basket attached to a pulley, hoisting only when the boys called out with an understood signal.
One night, Thompson caught a boy in the bush, and got him to hit the bricks, but not before Thompson had taken his place his place in the basket. He had been hoisted to the third floor when the girls finally realized who was in the basket, and terrified, let loose the rope and let him drop. Mr. Thompson survived the fall, but he walked with a limp after that.
Relating to Mr. Thompson, the next ghost story takes place on the north end of the second floor. Thompson’s son was but a willful four-year-old when, on his birthday, he was asked if he wanted someone else to light the candles on his cake or if he would like to do it. You never give a toddler a chance at independence. The boy asked to light his own candles, proud to accomplish some task with such advanced and dangerous technology under human control. His accomplishment was short lived; for just a few short days later, the boy was dead.
He can be heard bouncing a ball or knocking on doors asking if people will play with him. Once it is reported that a group of kids were playing ball in an attempt to entice the little spirit, and scattered when a hotel denizen came out to investigate the noise. That patron saw only a little boy about four or five, dressed in old fashioned clothes, who walked around the corner and asked where the other children had gone. When she pointed up the stairs, he thanked her very cordially, then bolted up the risers – one…two…three…four…five – and vanished.
Down the hall, room 218 is perhaps the most haunted room of the hotel, and the oldest ghost of the premises seems to frequent there. Michael was an Irish stone mason of about seventeen employed to help build the hotel. The Crescent, named for the plot of land atop this mountain in this general shape, was carved into a French Gothic style out of area limestone. Stonemasons were employed, and the story goes that Michael, quite the lady’s man, found two such coquettish beauties with whom to flirt as he worked on the construction of the roof, so long ago. Ah the impetuousness of youth, and the belief that you are immortal. He slipped and fell, two stories down, landing in what was to be this room.
He is known to be mischievous and still a flirt with the ladies, playing little pranks on anyone who stays in his room.
Our small crowd of twenty blocked entrance to this room, and two intruders stood patiently at the rear of the semi-circle, interested in getting by. They heard Michael’s tale as we all did, and produced a key to let them into 218.
“Take pictures,” they said, laughing it off. “Whoever wants to come.”
“I cannot encourage any of you to enter any of these rooms,” the tour guide said, and moved on down the hall. My contact lingered, and with the encouragement of the patrons, took a few steps in the snap a few pictures with a cell phone.”
We hurried to catch up.
We found the group in the lobby, gathered about the massive stone fireplace. Above the hearth, this poem inscribed:
Although, upon a summers day, You’ll lightly turn from me away; When autumn leaves are scattered wide You’ll often linger by my side; But when the snow the earth doth cover Then you will be my ardent lover
Transfixed by the poem, I missed the group’s egress out the front doors, and by the time I caught up, I’d missed the story about the statue out front. My contact looked at me scholarly and with rebuke, a furrowed brow over her plastic spectacle frames. I arrived in time to hear the tour guide direct us to the basement, what was the hospital morgue. We entered through a small side door out the back building for the climax to the Dr. Baker story. There were no more answers and nothing more enlightening here. Just cold and stone and throwbacks to old ghost-hunting reality shows.
I remembered the episode. It was back when most of the episodes ended with these ghost-hunters reluctant to call the place they’d visited haunted. Now it seems like every place they visit is filled with ghosts. I don’t know which I believe more. At least then, when their skepticism is rebuffed, it felt more authentic, although a skeptic might more believe with the number of dead traipsing this mortal coil – if there were such a thing – then every place would be haunted as they’re finding now.
You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
We walked back up to 406 after a bit more ghost hunting and we were quite sober by this point. I was not, because of my prodigious tolerance for alcohol, anywhere near drunk, and I’m sure neither was she.
Still, she began jumping on the raised four-poster bed, inviting me to join her, laughing as though she were on a trampoline. She was shorter than I by a foot, her head coming dangerously close to the rotating ceiling fan. She reached out a hand, inviting. Begging.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Aren’t you afraid of angering the ghosts?”
She laughed and plopped to her seat.
“You don’t believe in that stuff, do you?”
I was completely bamboozled now. In the space of an instant I recalled her pedigree, and found my own head cocking at my befuddlement with her. She laughed and reached out and took my hands.
“You think I believe this crap?”
“Weren’t you raised Catholic?”
She shrugged again. Such insouciance from the learned types and the young.
“I’ve never seen anything. I guess I spent my life chasing a ghost.”
“Did you ever believe?” And wouldn’t her whole dissertation then be called into question?
“No,” she said after the briefest of contemplations.
We fucked and switched off the lights and went to bed, sleeping soundly till around three a.m.
Now, I’ve known her well enough, over the years. We have never lived together, but I’ve known her in other ways. I know for a fact that once she goes to sleep, she sleeps soundly. You can rock her and jostle her all you want, but you generally won’t even get a peep. Once early one morning in Budapest I leant in and tried to give her a kiss, and she was near waking anyway and not used to company, from what we had discussed, and near waking she must have been roused from somnolence by my presence, and rose and swung. I ducked instinctively so that her fist swirled in a wide arc.
It was my turn in somnolence. The temperature of the room rose dramatically. I am a cool sleeper, and to feel the heat roused me from the deepest of dreams. But as I registered to the dark, the room temperature bottomed out and I felt my breath scream out from my lips, and then I heard her, coiled next to me, roused from her deep sleep.
She lay on her stomach, and told me later she felt her pillow rock from side to side. She felt her upper torso raise and drop nearer to her edge of the bed. She felt herself raise and drop again. She was nearer the edge of the mattress and the four-foot drop-off to the floor might as well have been a thousand-foot cliff, because the floor below was an all-consuming black. An eternal void.
“Don’t let me fall!” she screamed.
I awoke fully in that instant.
“The face! The face!” she screamed.
I flipped over, jostling the mattress. A black mass flitted to the corner, and then we were shrouded in Victorian covers.
“It can’t see us,” she said.
“What was it?”
“Like a projection. A face. Over the blackness.”
I thought of the statue, the Christ looming on the hill over the trees, opposing this place.
I removed the covers and flicked on the light, drowning out any potential demons. I rose and she rose and we looked about the room. Artificial bulbs dulled demonic power. In such light such things felt impossible. We thought we were safe.
We walked into the hall and investigated downstairs. Unlike earlier, the hotel was silent of the wanderers and noise and talkers. The interlopers. We walked back to her room and she laid down and covered up.
“If I can sleep, I’ll tell you where the manuscript is tomorrow.”
“I trust you,” I said. “If you want to go get it.”
“I’m not sure I do, anymore,” she said.
I stayed with her, the lights on, till she drifted off, and then I walked back downstairs. I found on the front desk a three-ring binder filled with the story of the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs. I sat on the couch in front of the great stone fireplace, perusing the folder. To the rear of the lobby, one of the massive wood doors swung open at the whim of the hilltop wind. Slowly. Silently.
I asked the night clerk for coffee and studied the readings, and ventured at once back down to the morgue, which after hours I found locked. I hunted the other spirits on the various levels but came up empty, and just after dawn I returned to the still-lit room as she woke.
I brought her coffee from McDonalds but no food because I knew she was a health nut. I exercised too, but was not so strict, so I ate my sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit and my hash brown without regret in front of her. Checkout was at eleven. We turned in the keys four hours early. She kissed my cheek and handed to me a folded piece of paper.
“There are thirty-five grimoires,” she said. “I’ll get a bead on the Voynich, but here’s a list of the others. They might help your friend.”
“I thought, after last night, you…”
She smiled as much for herself as for me. “I’m fine. We’ll help him. Don’t worry.”
“And last night?”
“When I was a little girl, I was really close to my grandfather. He’d take me to ballgames and to parks and every Sunday, when the ice-cream truck came around after church, he’d make sure I was out by the curb, money in hand, ready for my popsicle.
“And then one day he was dead. My mom and dad took me over to see him and we all found him in his favorite recliner. Like a waxwork impression of him asleep.”
“I still don’t get it. You wrote about magic and the spiritual and the reality of it all. But you act like you don’t believe.”
She shrugged. We were standing now under the shadow the Crescent at the door to her VW Bug, and she leaned against the open door and the frame with one foot propped back against the door jam and we were both under the shadow of the hotel.
“I was angry for him leaving and I was desperate to know where he’d gone, if he’d gone anywhere. I wanted to believe. But wanting to believe means that I can’t believe yet, and so I was a skeptic. Till last night.”
“What did you see?”
“A face. Hovering, projecting in the darkness. It nearly tossed me out of bed.”
I went for a hug but she stepped away, forever changed by her experience at the Crescent Hotel. She offered me a consolatory smile and half-curtsied and turned to her car, and within another minute had vanished from my life.
I drove to my biographers and crashed in his bed till well after noon. When I awoke he and his wife were gone. I left without a note but with the intent that I needed to stay in the area for a time. I called him later and he met me for a beer. We perched at Apple Blossom, drinking each a Fayetteweisse.
“You got a place lined out?”
I nodded. I knew that he loved me, and I knew that if he had a five-thousand square foot home, as opposed to his little apartment, as far as his wife was concerned, and as far as he was concerned, then there still wouldn’t be enough room for me.
“Good. How’d that girl work out?”
I shrugged noncommittally and sipped my beer. I would find an apartment soon enough. I’d make my own life here in Northwest Arkansas.