It won’t be long now. The night winds begin to gather the chill that will eventually drill into our bones once the damp, grey skies of November gather overhead, anchoring us to the sunset and the dark. Trees are explosions of color and then nothing but skeletons, their gnarled hands reaching for the sliver of moon left to us – the only light left in the dark. October is a country full of spirits and innuendos of the unknown and we are no strangers to its paths. Some of us even enjoy the quickening of the heart that comes with the unexplained shadows and sounds from the dark corner of unlit rooms. As Halloween arrives, I thought Strange New England might serve as a place to recall some of the stranger aspects of living in New England and how this landscape of long shadows keeps us in our place and makes us whistle in the darkness.
Though we report the stories, legends and tales that populate the pages of Strange New England, I can only claim to have experienced the edge of normal a few times in my life. It takes more than a little courage to come out and share them, so I’ll begin with a simple thing.. I would like to share my experience of the phenomenon known as Death Knocks.
I was a senior in high school when my experience occurred and it haunts me to this day. The seemingly inexplicable events of that one stormy winter night has never been something I could explain to my own satisfaction. Perhaps my readers will think I’m stretching the truth, but I invite you also to help me determine what really transpired that cold December night in 1979 in the cold expanse of far northern Maine..
We lived on the Back Presque Isle Road, seven miles from Caribou and fourteen miles from Presque Isle. We had neighbors, but they were not exactly next door neighbors. I was a junior in High School and I was staying up late watching television on Saturday night. I was used to staying up late and on the weekends, I had permission from my parents to set my own bedtime. Like most teenage boys, I got a thrill from staying up until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore and this was such a night. My parents were down the hall asleep and I was camped out on the couch watching Saturday Night Live. Outside, the snowstorm quickly developed into a blizzard, the wind whipping great gusts of snow against the windows and walls, trying to get in at every little crack. At the end of the show, WAGM played its customary film of Old Glory fluttering in the breeze as it played the Star Spangled Banner and then everything turned to static. I had already fed the woodstove an extra helping of birch and was about to see if anything was on CHSJ, the Canadian channel from over the border when it happened.
There was a pounding on our porch door. Three loud thuds resounded in the living room and brought my heart directly to full throttle as it tried to jump out of my chest. As I try to recall the events of that night, I remember that there was essentially a blizzard raging without, one of those that erased all of the hard edges of the world and covered the darkness with the fainted, palest white. I remember that I froze in place, trying to make sense of what I had just heard. It didn’t make any sense.
Our porch was fully enclosed and was a room in its own right. The only entrance to that porch was a sliding glass door that was locked firmly closed by a piece of maple cut to the exact length of the door and set carefully in place to block the door from sliding. There was no way anyone could have gained entrance to that door without breaking the glass or somehow lifting the piece of maple from the groves of the bottom of the casement. The question in my mind had no real answer: no one could be out there. No one.
Three more knocks, this time even more pronounced, hammered against the door. This time, I sprang off the couch and ran down the hallway to awaken my father. Dad had been a deputy sheriff and had a small handgun he kept in a drawer next to his bed. When I recall, I find it odd that he didn’t reach for it. He simply got out of bed and went to the living to room to hear for himself.
Three more thuds.
“Who’s there?” my father said loudly. Two words – a simple question, really. But the answer was not forthcoming. He stood next to the door and said, “I’ll ask you one more time. You are you and what do you want?”
“Go see if you can see onto the porch,” he told me. Our porch door had no peep hole and was solid. There was a window in the kitchen that looked out onto the porch, but there was nothing out there but darkness, but because of its placement, I couldn’t see to the door itself.
“I can’t see anything,” I whispered to my dad.
“Come back here,” he whispered back.
A minute that seemed like a slice of eternity passed and then, a single thud, the loudest so far, resounded in the air and shook one of the pictures off the wall.
“I’m doing to get my gun,” my father said firmly to the air. “When I come back, I won’t hesitate to use it. Now, one last time, who the hell are you?”
And that was that. No further sounds, no other knocks. Simply the long silence after the fact. We waited near the doorway for perhaps three or four minutes. Dad took the opportunity to put on his winter coat and boots, still not actually retrieving his weapon. Then, he turned on the outside light that lit the driveway and our front yard. Though the driving snow reduced our visibility, we could see that there were no footsteps onto our porch in the snow. The driveway and lawn were a pristine white blanket of snow, undisturbed by any mark of passage.
We both went outside, but not before Dad got his pistol. As the snow and ice stung our faces, we took a flashlight and examined the sliding glass door to the porch from the outsider looking in. It was secure and tight, the measured piece of maple board still blocking the door from opening. The tight beam lit the interior of the porch – it was empty of anything that didn’t belong there. Whatever had caused the knocks was not currently on the porch or anywhere that we could see. Whatever had tried to gain entrance into our little home on the freezing cold night was nowhere to be seen.
I wish I had something to tell you that would help to explain what happened. At the time, we had no idea what this strange occurrence meant or how it could have transpired in the first place. It has become of the strangest mysteries of my life.
I learned later that in some cultures, such as my own Franco-American, but also the Scots-Irish tradition, there is such a thing as a death knock. They come in the night and are supposed to announce the oncoming death of someone in or connected to the household. The knocks usually come in sets of three and are supposed to signify that in three months, three weeks, or three days, someone will pass away. Death knocks, then, are a portent of doom. Strangely enough, no one in our house died in three months, three weeks or three days. But I have kept one of the most disturbing details for the end of my story, which is that even my father, the bravest man I have ever known, didn’t dare to go out onto that porch until the next morning when the sun finally rose. We unlocked the door and slowly opened it.
There, on the floor just in front of the door, no bigger than a saucer plate, was a small puddle of red, red blood.