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STUDY HILL for Young Writers
 
BRT's Heritage Arts Studio begins a new fall season by honoring New England's literary legacy in the Blackstone River Valley with a new print and electronic journal called STUDY HILL. Named for William Blackstone's 17th century farm and library once located in the area of our theater, STUDY HILL will publish both new writing and special editions of rare and out of print or older text evocative of New England themes and connections.

Check the Classes page for full information about our new after school workshop for secondary writers working to meet RI's Dual Diploma Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements. Young authors in grades 10 through 12 will meet with instructor Marly Lee Partington, starting October 30, for six Tuesdays from 3-5:00 p.m. to read and discuss short samples of New England-based fiction as inspiration for new writing of their own! Writers will then begin portfolios of original work including "in the round" conclusions to G. Wayne Miller's original short story, "Vapors."

The following short story, "Vapors," is by G. Wayne Miller of the Providence Journal. Miller is known not only for his award-winning journalistic gifts, but also for his highly regarded non-fiction. "Vapors" brings Miller's writing full circle... back, in short form, to a first love as an author... horror fiction. His novel THUNDER RISE was among his earliest published works. The opening sequence of "Vapors" was presented in BRT's print schedule and is presented in its entirety, and continued, here...


"Vapors" A short story by G. Wayne Miller (www.gwaynemiller.com)

   The vapors emerged late that night, the first night of August. They traveled fog-like, yet invisible, hugging the ground, curling onward, relentless, odorless, out of the woods and along the streets to the quiet North Smithfield villages, where they seeped into every house without exception, drifting upstairs to the bedrooms, where the good folk slept. The good folk breathed in, deeply, rhythmically, unknowingly, as the vapors penetrated their dreams, which were quickly poisoned.
   The essence of the poison was people dead and dying. The sounds were of musket fire, of arrows slicing the air, of determination and courage and anger and then horror; of fleeing into twilight darkness, and, finally, of soundless unconsciousness, save for the buzz of insects drawn to blood. The sights were of a swamp in summer, of an armed militia on attack, of men with deeper skin tones indiscriminately butchered.
   And piercing it all, the scream of a little girl, her parents obliterated: the girl now crying, now shivering, now fading, now gone, dissipated into vapor.
   Mercifully for the good folk, only the faint echoes of something unformed and barely imagined remained when they awoke the next morning. They were the lucky ones. Just two people remembered with clarity.
   The degree of clarity was extreme.

   The first was Ted Steere, an unmarried man of approaching middle age, a photographer who lived with his golden retriever along the woods near the nexus of Smithfield and Burrillville (those kindred old mill towns), a professional photographer with his studio in Providence, a good man, a creative man, a sane man. The little girl was inescapable when he awoke, made his coffee, ate his breakfast, and looked across his back lawn into trees that deepened into a hidden swamp, on low boil now in the dog days of summer. He had only heard the girl in his poisoned dream, that piercing wail, the worse silence that followed - but now, in daylight, when he closed his eyes he could imagine her. She was perhaps eight years old, tall and thin, pretty, with dark hair and a gentle smile that atrocity had turned to terror... and, eventually, the mask of death.
   Ted went through the motions, could muster nothing more, during the hours of his day. He had no appetite when he returned home for dinner, and so he ate nothing. A glass of wine, and then a second, and then another and a fourth did not chase the girl from his thoughts. The good folks slept well that night, but not Ted. There were no vapors this time -but there was that voice, the little girl's voice. Ted's dog heard it, too, and the animal's ears pricked up and she began to growl in fear. The dog retreated under his bed, and then he heard it: the girl calling his name.
   But not Ted.
   She called him Theodore. Only his mother, long since passed, had ever called him that. Seven nights straight, this was repeated.

   The second to remember was Charlie Thomas, a Native American and lifelong Slatersville resident whose ancestors comprised the Seaconke Wampanoags. His tribal name was Rainbow Man, a high compliment from his tribe that he cherished.
   He was a licensed pharmacist with a good job and a reputation for kindness, but his true calling was herbalism, and his soul belonged to his people. He had labored mightily to keep the traditions of the Wampanoags alive, their reverence for nature and each other, and for all others - yet he was not consumed by the past. He was a family man, a community man, a man of thirty-eight years who was respectful of inner spirit. And when the vapors came, he, unlike Ted, the only other, was not so disturbed when he awoke that next morning. He recognized omens, even if he did not always understand their meaning.
   That August 1st, he knew, was the 332nd anniversary of a patchily chronicled battle during King Philip's War, so deadly to his ancient people. Chased into Nipsachuck Swamp by white men and their Mohegan allies that day in 1675, the Wampanoags, numbering some 300 (women and children among them), thought they had found sanctuary. What they had really found was slaughter. Some escaped deeper into the woods, bearing stories that would endure for centuries. Some were captured. And many, like the little girl -- she who was called Dear One - left this earth that night.
   So he knew, this learned man Charlie, what - or, rather, who - had visited his dreams that night, though he could not grasp, not yet, why. Imbued as he was with his people, as reverentially as he remembered the anniversary of the Battle of Nipsachuck every summer, Charlie had never experienced anything like this.

   The two intersected over a drugstore counter. Ted knew Charlie, of course; North Smithfield is a small town, just as Blackstone Valley is a small valley, the state itself not much bigger. He had been to Charlie's pharmacy often.
   It was first thing on a Saturday a week after the vapors, and Ted, plagued by insomnia, continued to hear and see nighttime things that now, sleep-deprived, he was beginning to believe must be entirely in his mind. He thought he must be going crazy - although his doctor, with some consoling words about stress and summer heat, had dismissed that, and then prescribed a sleep aid and advised him to return in a month.
"I've never taken one before," Ted told Charlie.
"I don't recommend it," Charlie said. "The potential for dependency is great."
"You never like prescribing something that's not natural, do you."
"Not never," Charlie said with a smile, "but not often, either."
   This was not a conversation of which Charlie's boss would have approved, but Charlie was his own man, the pharmacy at this early hour deserted.
"So what would you suggest?"
"Lavender-mint tea."
"It will help me sleep?"
"It should."
"Does it help with nightmares?"
   Charlie studied his customer. Their eyes locked, and he knew, with startling clarity, that she had come to him, too.
"She visited, didn't she," Charlie said. "One night last week, and every night since. A little girl. Unshaped - vaporous - I can think of no better word - but a little girl nonetheless. You know that, don't you. It's not your imagination."
"She called me Theodore. No one but my mother ever did, and she died when I was a boy."
"The girl came to me, too, on that night, though not since," Charlie continued. "Her name is Dear One, a name bestowed with the love of her parents, who had feared they would never have a child. She was beautiful, and wise - yes, wise, even as a girl of eight. The elders prophesized that someday she would achieve magnificence."
"She died before it could happen."
"More properly, was first badly wounded, and then, crawling to escape the madness of war, disappeared into the terrible swamp, where, as darkness descended and she turned feverish and the life drained from her, her screams tapered into silence."
"Nipsachuck Swamp."
"Not far from your house."
   Charlie related the greater story of the 1675 battle, with which Ted was passingly familiar. A local newspaper had recently published a story about a strange grouping of stones in woods adjacent to the swamp - stones that some, like Charlie, who had guided the reporter there, believed were related to the battle. Tombs, perhaps, or a rock memorial - whatever the original intent, undoubtedly sacred. But there had been nothing in the newspaper story about Dear One, whose fleeting life was known only to those, like Charlie, who were imbued with tribal culture.
"What does she want?" Ted said.
"I don't know. Nor do I know why she should appear all these years later - to my certain knowledge, this is a first. Nor still why it should be on the 332nd anniversary, and not, say the 300th, or the 333rd - or December or March of another year, no anniversary at all. But this is an academic issue, no more relevant than the question or why a bear can sleep an entire winter but a person cannot sleep a full day. The questions for us are ones you have already framed: what does she want, and why it involves us, and only us."
   They talked some more, Ted seeking to apply logic and rationale where none belonged. Charlie speculated that Dear One had left something vital unaccomplished, or sought justice - or, ghost-like, inexplicably belated, liberation from her fate; surely, passing on in her circumstances could not have brought her to a better place. Charlie assumed, modestly, that his role in her salvation - if salvation is what was before them - derived from his connection to his culture. Ted wondered if a colonial ancestor had been the one to send Dear One to her spongy grave.
   Indeed, the Steeres, this extended family of farmers and industrialists, had lived in the valley since earliest settlement - but none had participated in King Philip's War. Ted knew this with virtual assurance, for he had recently completed his genealogy. The Steeres had been hard-working and patriotic, and virtually without exception, peace-loving, and sane. But Ted had not gone that far back on his maternal grandmother's side. Had he, he would have learned a remarkable tale.

   They met, these two, the next evening as the sun started down behind the hills west of Nipsachuck Swamp. Insects droned, birds chattered, and the summer earth simmered as they headed into woods, Charlie guiding them along a trail that wilderness had all but swallowed, a trail that only he and a few others, obeying unspoken secrecy, knew existed. Instinct seemed his compass - or perhaps, Ted thought, madly, it was the ancients reaching through time to show the way. Ted remained weary and sleepless, the lavender-mint tea having failed abysmally. How easily they could get lost in this darkening tangle, which time had forgotten here, barely fifteen miles from the city.
   They crossed a small stream and the tall trees thinned, giving way to dense shrub and briar and the low vegetation of thriving wetlands. Ten minutes passed without a word, and then fifteen more. An owl proclaimed something somewhere in the distance and crickets chimed in, and then it was suddenly silent, dead silent, more silent than Ted had ever experienced - but not Charlie, no, not him.
"We're here," he said.
   It seemed nothing noteworthy, just a clearing at the edge of the swamp: a leaf-carpeted, branch-cluttered, spongy area, with moss-covered rocks in the middle.
"Look carefully," Charlie said.
   In the advancing twilight, Ted saw that the rocks were arranged in patterns whose meaning he could not decipher. Separate piles. Cairns. Nature could not have been responsible, Ted thought; neither wind nor rain nor snow had the ability.
"They're no accident," Ted said.
"No."
   Charlie bent close to the first grouping of rocks, drew a flashlight from his pocket, and shone it on a large, smooth, white rock in the middle.
"This is curious," he said.
"What?"
"This one has no moss."
"Maybe an animal ate it," Ted said. He was groping.
"I was here a month ago with that reporter," Charlie said. "They were all moss-covered. Every one."
"Maybe a kid got in here."
"With an SOS pad and a sander?" The attempt at humor fell flat.
   The two fell quiet again. Gingerly, Charlie lifted the rock.
   Fresh blood was pooled beneath.
"Oh my God," Ted said.
"It's no animal," Charlie said. "This came from a person."
"We have to leave," Ted said. The sun was gone; they had, at most, twenty minutes of light left.
   Charlie closed his eyes.
"She's here," he said. "Dear One is with us."
   A wisp of fog rose from the crimson wet. This time, the vapors were not invisible.
   This time, they took living shape.
   The shape of a little girl.
"Please, Theodore," the girl said, "help me."

TO BE CONTINUED...