The old man – Billups is his name – lives alone in a rickety wood-shingle, house. It stands at the end of a short, dirt road at the south end of town that runs alongside the vacant lot where the boys play baseball. Corn grows there in the summers, though no living soul has ever witnessed anything like a farmer, and no one knows what becomes of all that corn.
You see, Old Man Billups eats children. Or perhaps he simply cuts them up and feeds them to the Unspeakable Evils he keeps locked away in his storm cellar. It depends on whom you ask. Some say he is an evil sorcerer who turns children into furniture and he has a chair that cries when you sit in it. Three generations have grown up with one story or another of one hapless child or another who wandered up that dirt road never to be seen again.
The tiny details, as it often is with details, are truly unimportant. I know that now. Whichever version of the stories you believe, the fact remains. No one dares cross the fence onto his property. Baseballs hit foul are lost forever in the corn – scores of them. Each Halloween night, bold dares are made to trick-or-treat his unlit porch. Tales of those who brave their way past the rusted sign that reads Trespassers will be Prosecuted are as many and as exaggerated as a fisherman’s. And of course, no one believes them – not a word.
Like any other legend, the truth behind Old Man Billups is the one story never told, and like many legends, the truth is stranger than the tall tales the children invent in morbid one-upmanship. That story is my story, and since it’s unlikely that any of you have ever heard it, I’ll share it with you now.
My name is Edgar Allan Poe. Already you are convinced by my name of my madness, but my name, I assure you, was a prank my parents had at my expense. I am no madman of the quill. Indeed, you will find me quite sane. My story does commence with murder more than five decades thence. Yes, that murder was at my hands, and yes, insanity was my plea, but do not believe me dispossessed of my wits, for they were about me then, and they haunt me now, though I would sooner be rid of them than in torture reminisce.
Elenore, my dear sweet Elenore. I admit now that I had no proof. I was insane with jealousy, insane with my love for her, and so for just cause I implore you to believe this: that what psychopathy caused me to dismember her and leave her head beneath a bush on Lawrence Billups’ veranda was merely temporary as the plea suggests. I know now that it was my own character, my own worth which I sought to punish more than her perceived unchaste deportment. Elenore – sweet, sweet Elenore – but she is merely how my story begins.
My trial was a swift one. For that reprehensible fact I blame my obsession – my frenzied obsession with details – those tiny details – those unimportant details. The details are the life force of an event, its élan vital, and I must be precise in my knowledge of them. It is my bane. That prosecutor was in error. I knew her head had not been found with her body. I had to correct the foul error of his wily trickery. You understand. I had to.
Life behind bars consumed my wretched spirit. I wasted away in my cell, a mind such as mine, while the courts argued in what manner best to separate that mind from the rest of my corpus. Midnight after dreary midnight I lay in my bunk with no life of my own but to live the shallow course of others upon printed page. And the curse, that very curse that was my name, fell upon me as if destiny, by fell stroke of its sword of self-imposed justice, had meted out my penance. By fate, and fate alone, I read that awful, awful, poem.
Head nodding though the jaws of sleep meant to snatch me from life once and forever more, it’s rapping came at my door. Surely, it was the midnight watchman and nothing more. But as the words of that accursed poem revealed the name of my poor Elenore, its tapping came once more. I leapt from my cot and grasped at the grating, but peering out into the corridor, I saw darkness and nothing more.
“Elenore,” I whispered that radiant maiden’s name. I knew what accusations lay imprisoned by my namesake’s pen. My heartbeat ever faster, I turned inside once more, and there, black fiend, I heard it speak, while gaunt and grim, its grey and ghostly, ghastly shadow cast upon my floor. But one word it spoke, “Nevermore.”
Sharp instruments I’d none. The details of my planning, those insignificant details, I was forced to scratch inside my mind, for if I did not escape, that feathered demon had assured I truly would go mad. Some rat poison accidentally mixed with my meal, an improvement to be sure, would send me to the infirmary. A pocket picked, an orderly tucked neatly into my bed, I’d time it right and in his uniform, I’d walk as freely through that prison gate as though I’d just walked in.
The taste of freedom in the air was almost more than I could bear. I wept as I ran, undeserving I, to breathe sweet freedom’s fragrance. Uncaged, yes, but I was a free man by no account, imprisoned by the prosecutor’s lies just as the details of my plan were imprisoned in my head. Straight to Billups’ farm I fled, to Elenore, to where the crows by by now had picked her clean. And there I heard them, tapping, rapping, squawking, flapping…
I turned my head, I shook my fist, I cursed his name that day. “Billups! Why can’t you keep these God-damned crows away?”
Five decades hence I stand here now, a statue made of straw, no freer stood among the weeds and corn than rotting in that cell. What fate more fitting? As impotent against these pesky thieves as I thought myself that fateful day, that day I took her life. You thought me mad, you must still, and whether curse of sorcerer or not, I bear the curse alone. The stories grown from what I’ve done keep company afar. Oh, Elenore, my dear, sweet Elenore. If only when I asked that day, you’d not said, “Nevermore.”
© 2013 Anne Schilde