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The Man in the Black Suit : 4 Dark Tales

Stephen King

  The Man in the Black Suit : 4 Dark Tales

  Stephen King


  I am no w a very old man and this is something that happened to me when I was very young--only nine years old. It was 1914, the summer after my brother, Dan, died in the west field and not long before America got into the First World War. I’ve never told anyone about what happened at the fork in the stream that day, and I never will. I’ve decided to write it down, though, in this book, which I will leave on the table beside my bed. I can’t write long, because my hands shake so these days and I have next to no strength, but I don’t think it will take long.

  Later, someone may find what I have written. That seems likely to me, as it is pretty much human nature to look in a book marked "Diary" after its owner has passed along. So, yes--my works will probably be read. A better question is whether anyone will believe them. Almost certainly not, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not belief I’m interested in but freedom. Writing can give that, I’ve found. For twenty years I wrote a column called "Long Ago and Far Away" for the Castle Rock Call, and I know that sometimes it works that way--what you write down sometimes leaves you forever, like old photographs left in the bright sun, fading to nothing but white.

  I pray for that sort of release.

  A man in his eighties should be well past the terrors of childhood, but as my infirmities slowly creep up on me, like waves licking closer and closer to some indifferently built castle of sand, that terrible face grows clearer and clearer in my mind’s eye. It glows like a dark star in the constellations of my childhood. What I might have done yesterday, who I might have seen here in my room at the nursing home, what I might have said to them or they to my--those things are gone, but the face of the man in the black suit grows ever clearer, ever closer, and I remember every word he said. I don’t want to think of him but I can’t help it, and sometimes at night my old heart beats so hard and so fast I think it will tear itself right clear of my chest. So I uncap my fountain pen and force my trembling old hank to write this pointless anecdote in the diary one of my great-grandchildren--I can’t remember her name for sure, at least not right now, But I know it starts with an "S"--gave to me last Christmas, and which I have never written in until now. Now I will write in it. I will write the story of how I met the man in the black suit on the bank of Castle Stream one afternoon in the summer of 1914.

  The town of Motton was a different world in those days--more different than I could ever tell you. That was a world without airplanes droning overhead, a world almost without cars and trucks, a world where the skies were not cut into lanes and slices by overhead power lines. There was not a single paved road in the whole town, and the business district consisted of nothing but Corson’s General Store, Thut’s Livery & Hardware, the Methodist church at Christ’s Corner, the school, the town hall, and half a mile down from there, Harry’s Restaurant, which my mother called, with unfailing disdain, "the liquor house."

  Mostly, though, the difference was in how people lived--how apart they were. I’m not sure people born after the middle of the century could quite credit that, although they might say they could, to be polite to old folks like me. There were no phones in western Maine back then, for one thing. The first on wouldn’t be installed for another five years, and by the time there was a phone in our house, I was nineteen and going to college at the University of Maine in Orono.

  But that is only the roof of the thing. There was no doctor closer than Casco, and there were no more than a dozen houses in what you would call town. There were no neighborhoods (I’m not even sure we knew the work, although we had a verb--"neighboring"--that described church functions and barn dances), and open fields were the exception rather than the rule. Out of town the houses were farms that stood far apart from each other, and from December until the middle of March we mostly hunkered down in the little pockets of stove warmth we called families. We hunkered and listened to the wind in the chimney and hoped no one would get sick or break a leg or get a headful of bad ideas, like the farmer over in Castle Rock who had chopped up his wife and kids three winters before and then said in court that the ghosts made him do it. In those days before the Great War, most of Motton was woods and bog--dark long places full of moose and mosquitoes, snakes and secrets. In those days there were ghosts everywhere.

  This thing I’m telling about happened on a Saturday. My father gave me a whole list of chores to do, including some that would have been Dan’s, if he’d still been alive. He was my only brother, and he’d died of a bee sting. A year had gone by, and still my mother wouldn’t hear that. She said it was something else, had to have been, that no one ever died of being stung be a bee. When Mama Sweet, the oldest lady in the Methodist Ladies’ Aid, tried to tell her--at the church supper the previous winter, this was--that the same thing had happened to her favorite uncle back in ‘73, my mother clapped her hanks over her ears, got up, and walked out of the church basement. She’d never been back since, and nothing my father could say to her would change her mind. She claimed she was done with church, and that if she ever had to see Helen Robichaud again (that was Mama Sweet’s real name) she would slap her eyes out. She wouldn’t be able to help herself, she said.

  That day Dad wanted me to lug wood for the cookstove, weed the beans and the cukes, pitch hay out of the loft, get two jugs of water to put in the cold pantry, and scrape as much old paint off the cellar bulkhead as I could. Then, he said, I could go fishing, if I didn’t mind going by myself--he had to go over and see Bill Eversham about some cows. I said I sure didn’t mind going by myself, and my dad smiled as if that didn’t surprise him so very much. He’d given me a bamboo pole the week before--not because it was my birthday or anything but just because he liked to give me things sometimes--and I was wild to try it in Castle Stream, which was by far the troutiest brook I’d ever fished.

  "But don’t you go too far in the woods," he told me. "Not beyond were the water splits."

  No, sir."

  "Promise me."

  "Yessir, I promise."

  "Now promise your mother."

  We were standing on the back stoop; I had been bound for the springhouse with the water jugs when my dad stopped me. Now he turned me around to face my mother, who was standing at the marble counter in a flood of strong morning sunshine falling through the double windows over the sink. There was a curl of hair lying across the side of her forehead and touching her eyebrow--you see how well I remember it all? The bright light turned that little curl to filaments of gold and that instant I saw her as a woman, saw her as my father must have seen her. She was wearing a housedress with little red roses all over it, I remember, and she was kneading bread. Candy Bill, out little black Scottie dog, was standing alertly beside her feet, looking up, waiting for anything that might drop. My mother was looking at me.

  "I promise," I said.

  She smiled, but it was the worried kind of smile she always seemed to make since my father brought Dan back from the west field in his arms. My father had come sobbing and barechested. He had taken off his shirt and draped it over Dan’s face, which had swelled and turned color. My boy! he had been crying. Oh, look at my boy! Jesus, look at my boy! I remember that as if it were yesterday. It was the only time I ever heard my dad take the Saviour’s name in vain.

  "What do you promise, Gary?" she asked.

  "Promise not to go no further than where the stream forks, Ma’am."

  "Any further."


  She gave me a patient look, saying nothing as her hands went on working in the dough, which now had a smooth, silky look.

  "I promise not to go any further th
an where the stream forks, Ma’am"

  "Thank you, Gary," she said. "And try to remember that grammar is for the world as well as for school."

  "Yes, Ma’am."

  Candy Bill followed me as I did my chores, and sat between my feet as I bolted my lunch, looking up at me with the same attentiveness he had shown my mother while she was kneading her bread, but when I got my new bamboo pole and my old, splintery creel and started out of the dooryard, he stopped and only stood in the dust by an old roll of snow fence, watching. I called him but he wouldn’t come. He yapped a time or two, as if telling me to come back, but that was all.

  "Stay, then," I said, trying to sound as if I didn’t care. I did, though, at least a little. Candy Bill always went fishing with me.

  My mother came to the door and looked out at me with her left hand held up to shade her eyes. I can see her that way still, and it’s like looking at a photograph of someone who later became unhappy, or died suddenly. "You mind your dad now, Gary!"

  "Yes Ma’am, I will."

  She waved. I waved too. Then I turned my back on her and walked away.

  The sun beat down on my neck, hard and hot, for the first quarter-mile or so, but then I entered the woods, where double shadow fell over the road and it was cool and fir-smelling and you could hear the wind hissing through the deep, needled groves. I walked with my pole on my shoulder the way boys did back then, holding my creel in my other hand like a valise along a road that was really nothing but a double rut with a grassy strip growing up the center hump, I began to hear the hurried, eager gossip of Castle Stream. I thought of trout with bright speckled backs and pure-white bellies, and my heart went up in my chest.

  The stream flowed under a little wooden bridge, and the banks leading down to the water were steep and brushy. I worked my way down carefully, holding on where I could and digging my heels in. I went down out of summer and back into mid-spring, or so it felt. The cool rose gently off the water, and there was a green smell like moss. When I got to the edge of the water I only stood there for a little while, breathing deep of that mossy smell and watching the dragonflies circle and the skitterbugs skate. Then, further down, I saw a trout leap at a butterfly--a good big brookie, maybe fourteen inches long--and remembered I hadn’t come here just to sightsee.

  I walked along the bank, following the current, and wet my line for the first time, with the bridge still in sight upstream. Something jerked the tip of my pole down once or twice and ate half my worm, but whatever it was was too sly for my nine-year old hands--or maybe just not hungry enough to be careless--so I quit that place.

  I stopped at two or three other places before I got to the place where Castle Stream forks, going southwest into Castle Rock and southeast into Kashwakamak Township, and at one of them I caught the biggest trout I have ever caught in my life, a beauty that measured nineteen inches from tip to tail on the little ruler I kept in my creel. That was a monster of a brook, even for those days.

  If I had accepted this as gift enough for one day and gone back, I would not be writing now (and this is going to turn out longer that I thought it would, I see that already), but I didn’t. Instead I saw to my catch right then and there as my father had shown me--cleaning it, placing it on dry grass at the bottom of the creel, then laying damp grass on top of it--and went on. I did not, at age nine, think that catching a nineteen-inch brook trout was particularly remarkable, although I do remember being amazed that my line had not broken when I, netless as well as artless, had hauled it out and swung it toward me in a clumsy tail-flapping arc.

  Ten minutes late, I came to the place where the stream split in those days (it is long gone now; there is a settlement of duplex homes where Castle Stream once went its course, and a district grammar school as well, and if there is a stream it goes in darkness), dividing around a huge gray rock nearly the size of our outhouse. There was a pleasant flat space here, grassy and soft, overlooking what my dad and I called South Branch. I squatted on my heels, dropped my line into the water, and almost immediately snagged a fine rainbow trout. He wasn’t the size of my brookie--only a foot or so--but a good fish, just the same. I had it cleaned out before the gills had stopped flexing, stored it in my creel, and dropped my line back into the water.

  This time there was no immediate bite, so I leaned back, looking up at the blue stripe of sky I could see along the stream’s course. Clouds floated by, west to east, and I tried to think what they looked like. I saw a unicorn, then a rooster, then a dog that looked like Candy Bill. I was looking for the next one when I drowsed off.

  Or maybe slept. I don’t know for sure. All I know is that a tug on my line so strong it almost pulled the bamboo pole out of my hand was what brought my back into the afternoon. I sat up, clutched the pole, and suddenly became aware that something was sitting on the tip of my nose. I crossed my eyes and saw a bee. My heart seemed to fall dead in my chest, and for a sure horrible second I was sure I was going to wet my pants.

  The tug on my line came again, stronger this time, but although I maintained my grip on the end of the pole so it wouldn’t be pulled into the stream and perhaps carried away (I think I even had the presence of mind to snub the line with my forefinger), I made no effort to pull in my catch. All my horrified attention was fixed on the fat black-and-yellow thing that was using my nose as a rest stop.

  I slowly poked out my lower lip and blew upward. The bee ruffled a little but kept its place. I blew again and it ruffled again--but this time it also seemed to shift impatiently, and I didn’t dare blow anymore, for fear it would lose its temper completely and give me a shot. It was too close for me to focus on what it was doing, but it was easy to imagine it ramming its stinger into one of my nostrils and shooting its poison up toward my eyes. And my brain.

  A terrible idea came to me: that this was the very bee that had killed my brother. I knew it wasn’t true, and not only because honeybees probably didn’t live longer than a single year (except maybe for the queens; about them I was not so sure). It couldn’t be true, because honeybees died when they stung, and even at nine I knew it. Their stingers were barbed, and when they tried to fly away after doing the deed, they tore themselves apart. Still, the idea stayed. This was a special bee, a devil-bee, and it had come back to finish the other of Albion and Loretta’s two boys.

  And here is something else: I had been stung my bees before, and although the stings had swelled more than is perhaps usual (I can’t really say for sure), I had never died of them. That was only for my brother, a terrible trap that had been laid for him in his very making--a trap that I had somehow escaped. But as I crossed my eyes until it hurt, in an effort to focus on the bee, logic did not exist. It was the bee that existed, only that --the bee that had killed my brother, killed him so cruelly that my father had slipped down the straps of his over-engorged face. Even in the depths of his grief he had done that, because he didn’t want his wife to see what had become of her firstborn. Now the bee had returned, and now it would kill me. I would die in convulsion on the bank, flopping just as a brookie flops after you take the hook out of its mouth.

  As I sat there trembling on the edge of panic--ready to bolt to my feet and then bolt anywhere--there came a report from behind me. It was as sharp and peremptory as a pistol shot, but I knew it wasn’t a pistol shot; it was someone clapping his hands. One single clap. At that moment, the bee tumbled off my nose and fell into my lap. It lay there on my pants with its legs sticking up and its stinger a threatless black thread against the old scuffed brown of the corduroy. It was dead as a doornail, I saw that at once. At the same moment, the pole gave another tug--the hardest yet--and I almost lost it again.

  I grabbed it with both hands and gave it a big stupid yank that would have made my father clutch his head with both hands, if he had been there to see. A rainbow trout, a good bit larger than either of the ones I had already caught, rose out of the water in a wet flash, spraying fine drops of water from its tail--it looked like one of those fishing pictures th
ey used to put on the covers of men’s magazines like True and Man’s Adventure back in the forties and fifties. At that moment hauling in a big one was about the last thing on my mind, however, and when the line snapped and the fish fell back into the stream, I barely noticed. I looked over my shoulder to see who had clapped. A man was standing above me, at the edge of the trees. His face was very long and pale. His black hair was combed tight against his skull and parted with rigorous care on the left side of his narrow head. He was very tall. He was wearing a black three-piece suit, and I knew right away that he was not a human being, because his eyes were the orangey red of flames in a woodstove. I don’t mean just the irises, because he had no irises, and no pupils, and certainly no whites. His eyes were completely orange--an orange that shifted and flickered. And it’s really too late not to say exactly what I mean, isn’t it? He was on fire inside, and his eyes were like the little isinglass portholes you sometimes see in stove doors.

  My bladder let go, and the scuffed brown the dead bee was lying on went a darker brown. I was hardly aware of what had happened, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the man standing on top of the bank and looking down at me--the man who had apparently walked out of thirty miles of trackless western Maine woods in fine black suit and narrow shoes of gleaming leather. I could see the watch chain looped across his vest glittering in the summer sunshine. There was not so much as a single pine needle on him. And he was smiling at me.

  "Why, it’s a fisherboy!" he cried in a mellow, pleasing voice. "Imagine that! Are we well met, fisherboy?"

  "Hello, sir," I said. The voice that came out of me did not tremble, but it didn’t sound like my voice, either. It sounded older. Like Dan’s voice, maybe. Or my father’s, even. And all I could think was that maybe he would let me go if I pretended not to see what he was. If I pretended I didn’t see there were flames glowing and dancing where his eyes should have been.