The Thawing of Rev Jules LeRoux
~ Ben Curl
THE TRANSFORMATION OF REV. JULES LEROUX. 1ST STAGE—SATURDAY, OCTOBER 15, 1870. DEER LAKE. WHERE I STEP INTO THE WATERS. FROM WHENCE I SHALL NOT RETURN UNTIL THE THAW. STRIPPED OF THIS WEARIED FLESH, YET YOU SHALL NOT FIND THESE BRITTLE BONES. YOU WILL FIND ME AS I AM, AS I WAS, AS I WASN’T MEANT TO BE BUT NEVERTHELESS AM AND AM FREE. COME ONE, COME ALL, TO WITNESS WHAT WILL BE BORN OF ICE.
When she plucked the crumpled flyer from the pocket of my trousers, mother sat me down on the wobbly stool papa had carved for me. With her finger on my chin, she bent my neck at a harsh angle to look her in the eyes.
“You shouldn’t be listening to him.”
“I’m not. I swear I’m not, mother.”
But I was.
Nothing in this world could stop me from listening.
The stooped figure and rambling words of Reverend LeRoux had insinuated themselves into my daily existence. He was the soft winter wind outside my window at night.
In a past life, I was a bird, a rare bluebird. From the gutters I spewed seeds and the insides of worms, into the mouths of young who were not my own, who had been abandoned by their wayward parents. From the alleyways I rescued stray cats, leading them to a purpose, a common cause. Because of these sacrileges, the townsfolk would not forgive me.
“Why were they angry?” I asked. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Don’t listen to what they tell you of right and wrong. He was sitting on an overturned tree stump, outside the edge of a pile of waste rock, stooping lower and lower into the setting sun. His shoulders were as low as the top of the stump. Those aren’t the things they’ll kill you for.
“Do you mean that they killed you? Back when you were a bluebird, I mean?”
My memory of those times is hazy. But, yes. He shook his hide, sending a spray of twigs and dried leaves from his back. I believe they killed me. That’s what seems true in my heart. So that must be what they did. Because they could not forgive me. They wrapped that bluebird in a cast of paraffin and set it aflame on an October night. Its ashy wings couldn’t fly again.
“Why do people do such horrible things?”
This question was asked by James Nairn, whose father had died in an explosion in the now-defunct mines of Copper Harbor. James had joined me the past few evenings by the outskirts of the piled black rocks. So had Alice and Evelyn Chambers, Thomas Thorne, and William McDonald. We couldn’t invite the Swedish or Polish children because they didn’t yet know English. James had never asked a question at our gatherings, not until now. His eyes were focused on a horror none of the rest of us could see, something that danced in the dwindling lights of the forest and pulled his pupils by a pair of invisible threads. It was impossible to tell whether he was listening for the answer, or whether he had asked the question only because he needed to ask it aloud, careless of what anyone would say.
The Reverend responded, but despite my distinct memory of so many of his other words, I cannot recall how he answered James. What I remember is the next story he told, on the final evening before the first stage of his transformation. It was the last time we children gathered to listen to his indecipherable sermons.
A great boat was built, to save all the creatures of the earth from a flood of fire. The boat was made of metal. This happened long before the time of Noah, back in a time when gods were capable of much greater anger. They have grown apathetic about us over the millennia, you see. That is why we cannot get the apocalypse we hope for. Our endings will not be worthy of any scripture, I’m afraid.
This metal boat was filled with cages, cunningly devised to keep the creatures from escaping, and to keep them from talking to each other too much. Eels were taught that eagles were demons. Cats became the archfiends of lizards. It came to be that none could understand each other anymore. Yes, truly, the designer of the metal ark was a genius, far more intelligent than Noah, his god more inspired than Yahweh.
The creatures all fought back against the confines and torture devices of the ark. All creatures except one, who finally adapted the ark to their own ends, who made a life of it. Do you know who this creature was?
We all shook our heads, sad, worried we were disappointing the Reverend with our ignorance, after he had devoted so much time to our learning in the days before his departure. Reflecting the dying embers of the fire, his eyes moistened. Humanity. People. He crossed and uncrossed his knobby knees. They were the ones who embraced the ark. They are the children of metal.
“Was the builder not a man?” I asked.
I don’t know. I don’t know if it was a woman or a man or some creature we no longer find on this earth. I only know that humans became the inheritors of the magical, mechanical boat that was constructed to save the world. He was dabbing his eyes with a sooty washrag. To save the world by caging it.
“Was the bluebird on this ark too?” Alice asked.
He was. Along with his would-be wife, his partner, his love. They became separated. For he thought he could outsmart the humans. He took their ways. He accepted a job. He kept the other prisoners in order aboard the ark. For all of these reasons, his wife could not forgive him, so she left. As soon as the ark was opened on the charcoal shores, she flew away, never to be seen again.
It was not until long after this separation, this eternal hurt, that the bluebird took to the gutters to save the young ones, that he repented of the part he had played in the operation of the ark. He always regretted what he had done to make his playmate fly away.
“Is it going to hurt when you transform?” I asked.
I expect it to hurt very much. In fact, I expect to die.
I couldn’t stop the sobs from coming. None of us could. We didn’t want him to leave us.
Though our parents tried to keep us away, we all made it to the shores of Deer Lake on October fifteenth, along with those few, curious spectators who had nothing better to do: a woman with beady, reptilian eyes restrained a bedraggled child by the strap of his overalls; a sunburnt man sat on a boulder, cleaning dirt out of yellow, hooked fingernails. The wind was howling and whipping the flyers away.
The Reverend stepped into the frigid water, one hobble at a time, stripping his clothes as he walked. At this outrage, the beady-eyed woman let out a gasp and yanked her child away. The man with the grimy fingernails grinned and rocked, his arms around his knees, perched on top of his boulder.
He walked stark naked until the water had reached his chin. Then he stood still.
He had told us this would be the difficult part: the pre-freeze days. We mustn’t speak with him. We must not visit the lake. The sparrows would bring him food, floating it out to him on dry nests. He would need nourishment until the time of his freezing. Then, once the weather was right, they would pour water over his head each day, until the ice covered him from toe to head. He forbade us from checking on him until the ice had thawed. He said he would need that time alone, undistracted by the needs of others.
On the day of the thaw, we all marched down to the lake. All of us except James, that is, who had begun working in one of the surface operations of the mine at Lake Medora. And Alice, who had died of cholera. She had fought as long as she could, sweaty and withering, eager to live long enough to see the Reverend’s transformation. In the end the disease was stronger than her fervor. We placed a broken robin’s egg on her grave.
Our parents told us we would find nothing in the lake. Nothing but rotting flesh nibbled by pike and trout. Nothing but the sad scraps of a foolish old man.
And they were right to an extent, of course. The Reverend’s vacant eye sockets stared up at us from beneath the rippling surface. His slumped figure swayed, a weightless dancer entranced by the rhythm of the water.
We cried, long and hard, the tears burning down our cheeks. Nonetheless, sitting together in the rowboat, holding hands as he’d told us to do, we were unafraid. We were sure we would find out what had happened to him.
That evening, the talk of the town was how Anders Arvidson had shot a pair of blue herons that had arrived unseasonably early at Bete Grise Bay. On the porch of the general store he stood beside our parents, the feathered corpses slung over his shoulder, long necks jostling against one another. The company store had refused to purchase the herons at a fair price. Arvidson wanted to know who else would buy them, which was no one. He shouted about his wretched luck. Who would at least buy him a drink then? Who would buy him a meal?
We stood at the edge of the road, trembling, huddled against one another. The outline of the town, silhouetted by the red horizon, had transformed into the frame of a gigantic ship, sailing heedless over a scorched sea.
Ben Curl writes speculative fiction when he’s not writing damning letters to employers on behalf of union members.
His short stories have appeared as podcasts on Horror Hill and Night Shift Radio. “The Glass Folio,” a tale about a nineteenth-century thief’s obsession with a grotesque book that promises immortality, will appear in Dark Horses: The Magazine of Weird Fiction in the summer of 2022.
Many of his stories are inspired by self-guided and never-successful ghost hunts amid abandoned mineshafts and karsts in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.