Kenan was a neighbor, but I didn't know him well or like him much. We'd mutually attended a couple of neighborhood barbecues, and this was the second time I'd been in his house. The first time, I decided not to make it habitual because Kenan was a little too weird. He was a professor specializing in medieval artifacts who collected occult items and displayed them in his home, and they were disturbing: ugly dolls, ouija boards, shrunken heads, and in his backyard was a guillotine he claimed was from the French Revolution, though I didn't believe it. He was a fair neighbor otherwise except sometimes bad smells emerged from his property, as if some animal had died somewhere and he was not meticulous about removal. Knowing that, I had with me a pouch of my most aromatic tobacco, though I was currently smoking my usual Va/Per. He had called to ask me to look at an antique box he had purchased, and I was intrigued.
The box was carved of dark, archaic wood, and its grain was unlike any I had seen. The wood wasn't smooth. Sharp, random ridges rose from the surface whose grain curved one way, then abruptly veered as if in pursuit of something and rose like fault lines into razor blades of hardwood, like some malevolent energy beneath its surface was pressing ruthlessly outward. It smelled of methane and burnt swamp rot. I lit my pipe to modify the stench with some good Virginias and the atmosphere abated from putrescent to repulsive, but I soon abandoned the smoke. Enjoyment was leeched from any experience in proximity to this object.
Detailed relief carvings depicted runes, devils, imps, and grotesque hounds, each mouth lined with feral teeth and each eyeball radiating hostility and contempt. They didn't look like carvings. There were no chisel or sanding marks. They looked as if they had erupted from the knurled wood like tumors from a diseased interior reaching out to corrupt and torment all it could influence.
They looked as if they had erupted from the knurled wood like tumors from a diseased interior
There were no latches, locks, or hinges, though each corner was fashioned with an inlaid silver cross. The box had no opening whatsoever, and each joint was impossibly dovetailed so that it could never be taken apart. It appeared to have been built expressly to guarantee it was never opened.
"Why make a box that won't open?" I said. "Maybe it's a solid cube?"
"No, it's hollow," said Kenan. He pulled on some welder's gloves and shook the box, which rattled slightly.
I reached out to touch it, but he pulled away.
"You wouldn't like it," he said. "It feels like a greasy film of burnt fat, and it cut me." He pulled off his left glove and turned his hand over so I could see the infection that had spread in radiating red ropes from his forefinger to his forearm. "Honestly," he said, "it didn't feel like a cut. It felt like it bit me."
"... it didn't feel like a cut. It felt like it bit me."
He had purchased the box at the estate sale of a powerful local politician who had died scandalously, burned to death in his mansion when a fire erupted. Forensic examination of the home determined that candles and ceremonial oil on an altar of some sort had fueled the blaze. They also discovered a basement torture chamber, occupied by two missing transients who had likewise died in the fire while chained to iron rings sunk two feet into the cement floor. Our small town had never witnessed such fiendish depravity.
Kenan was a student of the occult, and after reading about the local tragedy and the altar, he waited for the post-investigation estate sale of the few articles that had escaped immolation and purchased this unusual artifact.
"How long have you had this thing?" I asked.
"One year, 10 months, 28 days. I've had time to run tests. The crosses here at the corners? I had the silver analyzed using synchrotron radiation x-ray fluorescence and micro-proton-induced x-ray emissions. The silver is from a mine in Macedonia. Its composition, metallurgic microstructure, and ratio of corrosion-related elements indicate that it was smelted in the 15th century, which coincides with this little detail." He turned the box over to show me a date and place that had been scratched near a corner: "Wallachia, 1462."
"Why does that sound familiar?" I asked.
"Vlad III Drăculea, also known as Vlad the Impaler. Wallachia was his during that time."
"You think this box has something to do with Dracula?"
"Not necessarily. It's older than that, but it may have been responsible for the mayhem and misery associated with that part of history in that part of the world. I think the crosses were added in the 1400s, but the box predates them. Look here where there's another small etching: '蒙兀, 1220.' That's Mongolia during the worst of Ghengis Khan's reign. And here: 'Uganda, 1971.' That's Idi Amin. And here: 'Muscovy 1540.' That's Ivan the Terrible. Maybe this thing was present during particularly cruel episodes in human history. Maybe this thing caused all of that suffering. This could be the most significant find of our lifetimes."
Maybe this thing was present during particularly cruel episodes in human history
"If that's true, it's dangerous. Wherever this box goes, tragedy follows. Still, it has an aura about it that stimulates curiosity. Why haven't you opened it?"
"I didn't want to be hasty about destroying a potentially significant occult object. I wanted to open it, but I was frankly afraid and couldn't do it alone, and I was waiting for the metallurgy and other test results. But more than that, I get the impression that opening it alone would be, I don't know ... arrogant, maybe, and above my pay grade, like a howler monkey flying an F-22 fighter."
"I don't know anything about occult matters; that's your thing." I turned to leave.
"Look." He shifted the box in his hands to bring another corner into view, on which was etched the unmistakable silhouette of a smoking pipe. "You know something about pipes, right?"
"I don't recognize that marking," I said. "Pipes have been around throughout human history but weren't widespread until the mass production of modern tobacco, only around 500 years ago. With some of these dates, I don't see how it could be a pipe box or have anything to do with pipes. I have no explanation. Pipes are soothing and relaxing and don't fit the character of this box — you can feel the evil wafting off of it, for God's sake." When I spoke the deity's name, the lights flickered and the temperature in the room dropped as the crosses at the corners glowed. My bones and tendons chilled in response and I felt the urge to run outside and feel sunlight on my skin.
... the lights flickered and the temperature in the room dropped as the crosses at the corners dimly glowed
"That's alarming," said Kenan. "This reaction is new."
"Yeah, I'm outta here. This is too Exorcist for me."
"I know you're too curious for that. Let's open this thing and see what's inside. If it's a pipe, you'll regret not being here. You could be the co-discoverer of something unseen for a thousand years."
Attempts at manipulation tend to transform my attitude to contrariness, but he was right: regret is my kryptonite; I suffer from the great pipe opportunities that I've let slip by over the years: the perfectly sandblasted Jody Davis Lovat that I missed at a Chicago show only to see Brain Levine buy it and tauntingly smoke in front of me at every opportunity; the J.T. Cooke Billiard that I decided not to splurge on in 2007 only to dream about nightly for 15 years; the Chonowitsch Lumberman that I almost bought in 1999 whose impeccable shape still floats in my imagination and makes me walk into walls. I'd be criticizing myself for the rest of time if I missed an important pipe discovery. Kenan had blundered upon or divined the correct strategy for enlisting my participation.
"Do you have a band saw?" I asked.
"In the garage. Let's go."
We elected to slice one side from the box and Kenan, still wearing his gloves, slid it into the sawblade about an inch from its top, directly through the silver crosses. As the blade made contact, it sounded like a clanking titanium hyena fighting an air-raid siren and buckled, its teeth chipping and scattering.
As the blade made contact, it screeched like a clanking titanium hyena fighting an air-raid siren
"This is hard wood," said Kenan.
"It can't be wood," I said. "It has grain almost like wood, but I've never seen a saw blade do that. Could it be steel?"
"If the dates are right, it might be untempered carbon steel or meteorite iron, but it's too light for that," said Kenan. "I think we'll need a diamond blade for this."
We changed the sawblade and tried again, and slowly a groove began to form. The diamond blade didn't shriek like its predecessor, but it complained loudly nonetheless and took almost 15 minutes to work through the box, spewing foul black smoke that, in terms of odor and despite our respirators, was a torment transported from the sixth circle of Hell.
The box now had a lid and a way inside. Kenan placed the box on his workbench in preparation for opening it, and he paused. "I have a strange feeling about this," he said. "Giddy anticipation mixed with abject terror."
"No kidding. The feeling of dread around it is becoming intolerable. This is crazy. I say we duct tape it and toss it in the river."
"YOU WILL NOT," said an ominous and commanding voice from a corner of the garage. Kenan and I jumped into the air and turned toward a shadowy figure that had apparently materialized while we were occupied. Dark fog circulated around it in perpetual vortexes, concealing its form. The only feature I could identify was its stare: Its eyes glowed through the foggy visual distortion with an amber-like hue punctuated by sharp flecks of angry red that flashed like distant lightning.
Fear is an uncontrollable force, and it immobilized us. I wanted to scream, escape, and fold into a fetal position all at once but was stricken mute, and my feet were rooted to the concrete floor. Helpless, I watched as the figure approached.
I wanted to scream, escape, and fold into a fetal position
"It's all right; I won't hurt you much. I see you've found my pipe." The voice oscillated in tone and seemed composed of sounds cobbled together from echoes of steel struck on prison rock, the death throes of the innocent, and the multi-pitched screams of the tortured, each syllable scraping like a bone saw across my eardrums. Had my bladder not been empty, it most certainly would have made itself so at this moment. Intense, otherworldly cold radiated from my bone marrow, and I prayed for release from the vile dissonance of that abhorrent voice.
"I've been unable to sense its location for some time now, ever since an impudent group of monks sealed it with those crosses. It was disappointing that even their exquisitely excruciating deaths could not motivate them to reveal its place of concealment."
Kenan was first to find his vocal cords. "I am unworthy, Light Bringer, but I suspected that this item belonged to you. Please take it. Feel free to kill my friend and reward me as you deem best." I decided not to invite Kenan to any more barbecues.
Its laughter was like the tectonic grinding of continental plates heaving merciless mountains skyward into the world. "I am not the Morning Star, merely a follower, but I will have my pipe. Open the box."
I managed to croak the word, "Don't," and immediately regretted the utterance when the creature's attention turned to me. I could sense my very protoplasm curdling under its gaze and felt that I was evaporating from the inside, soon destined to become a mummified husk. Kenan lifted the cut side from the box and an exhalation of smoke like that of spores from puffballs spread into the air. "There's a leather pouch inside," said Kenan.
I could sense my very protoplasm curdling under its gaze and felt that I was evaporating from the inside
"Don't touch it, you idiot," I said, but our visitor overruled me: "Remove it."
Kenan lifted the pouch in his gloved hands and I recognized its material at once, though I had never seen its like. It pulsed and contorted, ribbons of musculature rippling under its surface. "That is made from a hellhound scrotum," I said, surprising myself. I knew it to be fact, sensing it on a cellular level through ancestral DNA. Kenan agreed. "You're right," he said. "It's obvious, but I don't know how."
"Your kind rarely sees it," said the visitor, "but a few of your forefathers have. It makes an impression that carries for generations. It's from my favorite pet. We were inseparable and it loved me, but I needed an appropriate pouch for my pipe. It's nice, yes?"
"No," I said. "It's not nice. It's evil."
The creature again turned to me and my soul withered, almost sending me to my knees. "They are the same," it said, and turned back to Kenan. "Open the pouch."
I was no longer curious and did not want to see what was within that vile purse, but I could find no words to dissuade Kenan, who loosened the drawstring and removed a pipe beyond the conception of mortals.
It was dark, of course, but its darkness was not of our world, and its surface quivered, fading and rematerializing in splotches as it shifted from this dimension to others, failing to retain a particular shape and residing in multiple universes simultaneously. Its rim was as serrated as rows of broken teeth and its tobacco chamber a maw of stygian foreboding. Its size shifted slightly, bulging larger and then contracting like the beating heart of some ancient monster. And it smelled. It smelled like a psychotic nightmare of rotting entrails and disease and hopelessness.
In contrast to its bowl, its stem was gray with a moderate bend and appeared made of jagged bone. The creature seemed to note my appalled interest. "The stem is made of three vertebrae from Pope Benedict IX, one of my favorite acolytes. He was entertaining, and still is when I smoke this in front of him as he wails and begs in the Fire. Ah, it's been too long; I look forward to his reaction when I return with it."
If the sealed box alone could cause so much human suffering, what would happen when the pipe was freed? I was horrified, but Kenan's expression reflected awe and delight. He turned to the visitor and with a formal bow held the pipe out in offering. "Your pipe, my lord," he said.
"Warm it for me," said the visitor. "Remove your gloves and smoke it."
Kenan's eyes widened in alarm. "Lord, I am unworthy and I am not a smoker."
Anger flared in the creature's voice. "Did you not hear? Smoke it."
Looking around the room for escape, Kenan looked to me for support. "Yeah," I said. "Smoke it."
"I don't know how."
"I will not again repeat myself," said the visitor.
"I, uh, I have no tobacco."
"Here," I said, and offered him my pouch of Virginias with Perique. He looked at me with an unrestrained hatred that would have been alarming in any other context. "Just sprinkle it in," I said. "Here's my lighter."
"There's no need for fire," said the visitor. "It will kindle itself."
Kenan took off his gloves and filled the bowl, and his hands seemed to merge with the pipe, spiraling onyx knots twisting around his wrists and forearms as he held it to his lips. The lip button surged forward to meet his mouth and plunged into his throat, pumping furious smoke into his lungs, which emerged from his nostrils in bilious clouds. His eyes widened, his cheeks inflated, and he tried desperately to pull the pipe from his mouth, but it had become part of his anatomy and was no longer an independent device.
... his hands seemed to merge with the pipe, spiraling onyx knots twisting around his wrists
His head exploded.
Brain matter and skull fragments cascaded through the garage, and his body slumped to the floor. The pipe rose from Kenan's lifeless fingers and floated to the demon, whose diabolical origin was no longer in doubt. I accepted my imminent doom and absently brushed a fragment of cranium from my beard. I recognized now that this creature was no more than a bully and undeserving of respect, and I felt my terror lifting. "I hope," I said, "that you don't expect me to smoke that thing. Just kill me."
"You may not fear death, but you should fear the manner of its manifestation. I can make you betray your own family to save yourself. I can make you beg that I torture your loved ones to stop your own agony."
"Do your worst," I said. "I've endured a pandemic, survived an IRS audit, and my dating years were during the Disco era."
I could feel its rage amplify but I no longer cared. "I know you," said the demon, changing tactics. "You write about pipes; you think you're an expert."
"I have some experience. What of it?"
"Let's make it interesting. I propose a smoke-off. You smoke your pipe, and I'll smoke mine. One room note will overpower the other. If you lose, you'll take your place next to my favorite Pope in the Fire. If you win, you keep my pipe."
"I don't want that pipe," I said. I gestured to Kenan's body. "It's obviously a bad smoker."
"But you'd like me not to have it. You perceive that its power and influence are greatly magnified when smoked by one such as I. For your lifetime, I will stay away from it and from you."
Smart demon. He knew how to bargain. "My natural lifetime."
I agreed, but only because there was no choice and I was already as good as dead. I knew I'd be competing with the most foul and revolting room note imaginable and that my Va/Per could not prevail. I slipped my Peterson Mark Twain from my jacket pocket, along with my pouch of Apricots & Cream, the most heavenly Aromatic tobacco on Earth. If I lost, it would be in style and smelling like optimism.
"I'll load my bowl," I said. "Your pipe is already filled with my best Va/Per."
"I won't use your tobacco; I have my own." A tobacco pouch dropped from nowhere onto the workbench. "Look."
I lifted it with trepidation. "This isn't made of hellhound," I said. "It's different."
"It has sentimental value, fashioned from the scrotum of another favorite, Joseph Stalin."
"You sure like your scrotums. Aren't there any psychotherapists in Hell?"
"Open the pouch. I want you to see what you're competing against."
It was a hideous item to touch, but I appreciated the propriety of a demon with a tobacco pouch made from the skin of the most despicable pipe smoker in history. This was a demon that appreciated details. I opened it to see what sort of tobacco a denizen of Hell might smoke.
I appreciated the propriety of a demon with a tobacco pouch made from the skin of the most despicable pipe smoker in history
I was confronted by the stench of decomposing flesh as I peered into the contents, which were writhing with maggots and speckled with bone particles. There may have been some rotted plant material in there somewhere, perhaps white hellebore or poison oak, but I couldn't identify it except that it was not related to tobacco. It was overpowering, and its repulsive character further emphasized that this would be a contest I was unlikely to win.
I opened my pouch of Apricots & Cream, and the demon immediately objected to the blend's aroma. "Swindler!" it howled. "Fraud! That's not the same tobacco. Its smell is dreadful. It's like sunny Sunday mornings and faith in human kindness. It's excruciating. Take it away from me."
"If you want to forfeit," I said, "get out now."
The demon only started smoking its pipe in response, and I fired up the old Mark Twain, praying that it would not fail me. It had always performed well, and I needed now more than ever for it to do its best work.
At first, the C&D tobacco filled the garage with sweetness and light, but soon the demon's smoking mixture started to take precedence. It was a battle of good and evil, light and darkness, hope and despair, the balance swinging first one way and then the other.
It was a battle of good and evil, light and darkness, hope and despair, the balance swinging first one way and then the other
I puffed harder, and the demon did likewise, the room filling with smoke. I stifled a cough, and the visitor chuckled. That signaled overconfidence. I used my tamper's pick to poke an aeration hole down the middle of my tobacco to provide more oxygen and began puffing in earnest, faster than I had ever smoked before. The scent of apricots began to liberate the room and the execrable stench of the demon's pipe began to wane. At last, both of our pipes were done.
I sniffed the air. It was awful, and it was close, but my tobacco dominated. "I've won," I said.
"Enjoy this fleeting moment," said the demon. "We'll meet again."
"You'd best honor our bargain," I said. "You may not respect humans, but a wager is sacrosanct."
"You won't live forever, and I'll be watching."
The demon's pipe fell to the floor as the unspeakable creature dematerialized and sunlight filled the garage. I could hear the sounds of birds and kids outside, which had been imperceptible during this ordeal. Pulling on Kenan's gloves, I placed the demon's pipe into its box and replaced the top, and watched as the cut we had made healed itself and the silver crosses glowed briefly and became whole again. The box was as perfectly sealed as before the start of this misadventure.
I didn't want to explain Kenan's ferocious decapitation to the cops, so I left quickly, wrapping the box in burlap and burying it deep in the woods behind my house.
I hope, for the sake of humanity, that it remains lost. Still, it haunts me and is never far from my thoughts. I occasionally detect a whiff of the demon's smoking mixture or peripherally see a glint of angry red lightning, but perhaps it's my imagination. I hope so. But I always carry a pouch of Apricots & Cream, and I can't sleep if it isn't on my nightstand. Demons cannot be trusted, and one never knows when a fine Aromatic may deliver the day.