The Devil’s Cord

For the edification of whomever is reading this, what I am about to describe is true. You will most likely not believe me and that’s fine. I cannot attest with definite certainty as to my own sanity; I don’t believe sane is something we really decide for ourselves. Society eyes us up like some state certified auto inspection center and tells us whether we are road worthy. Of course, just like the old American autos of my disconsolate youth, there is a great delta between what is acceptably roadworthy and what is capable of driving. Likewise, what is “sane” and what is functioning for people.

But what I am about to relate is true. I have carried parts of this story since I was four years old, never having written it down, and well into the deteriorating effects of adulthood and poor living, I am lucky to have borne it this far. I relate it to you now.

###

I first saw the cable when I was four years old, sticking out of the ground like the head of a snake. I can remember all sorts of things from when I was very young – I can remember being bathed in the sink if you want to know. I can remember the feel of the metal and the leaning my head against the spout of the faucet. That would mean I was one year old, or thereabouts. In this story I was four years old, and following my two older brothers, as I was wont to do, as they milled about our neighborhood with their gang of neighbors. Michael, my eldest brother, was quite a bit older though he wasn’t more than 12. He seemed very sophisticated and wise from my point of view.

The cable was thick as my child’s arm. Made of braided steel cord, a great length of it, easily fifteen feet or more and loosely coiled on the ground. It was violently snapped on one end and the threads of wire that poked out looked quite menacing, like a fist full of sewing needles at all angles ready to catch and cut me if I should think about touching it. The other end of the cable sank straight into the earth and disappeared. In my orderly four-year old brain, that was utterly odd and fantastic, almost as much as if the other end shot straight into the sky and out of sight.

“Where does it go,” I asked Michael.

He thought for a second. He had girls with him today, including Meg our parent’s friends’ daughter from six blocks over. I think he may have been showing off just a little.

“It goes down to Hell, Birdie,” he said, because Birdie is what everyone called me at the time, on account of the fact that my name was Robert and my other brother Matthew, only a year and a half older than me, called me Bertie instead of Robbie and he lisped so the T sounded more like a D.

“”It goes straight down to Hell and the devil holds the other end,” Michael said.

“Really?”

“Yup, and if you so much as touch it or go near that cable…” he made the sound of a whip lashing and I jumped every bit as he intended. “He’ll yank you straight down to Hell.”

“Does it hurt?” I thought I already knew that answer.

He and Meg and the other older kids laughed and they started off without Mathew and me.

“He’s lying,” said Mathew. “Don’t worry, Birdie.”

“The where does it go?” I protested, furrowing my brow as I pondered the unimaginable.

“Just into the ground. That’s all,” but Mathew didn’t sound so sure himself. “We’ll ask Mom and Dad.”

That seemed like a sound course of action. I gave a little grimace of relief.

Mathew started off after the older kids.

“Come on. They aren’t waiting for us,” said Mathew.

With the mystery of the cable solved for now, its danger diffused I felt comfortable enough to creep a little closer. It looked altogether mundane in origin, its matte finish a dull industrial gray. To me it was utterly mysterious.

“Come on!” Mathew protested. The group was cresting the hill and it would not be easy for my small legs to catch up. Mathew would have to wait to guide me and he hated that.

Then I heard something. Not like I heard Mathew, or the cars on the street up the hill, which was busier than ours, or the leaves in the tree whispering softly in the wind, or any single, clear, “real” sound. I heard a sound composed of all of those things and many more that I didn’t know I could hear.

It was the consumptive cough of the old man who lived two houses up the street from us who always gave us Circus Peanut candies when we stopped by to see him (he would be gone within the year and we’d meet his daughters instead), the sounds of a young couple fighting, the one with the new baby we would see strolling around the neighborhood. She would move away, with the baby, and he would leave the apartment without saying a word to the landlord in just a few weeks. The soft crying of a 10-year-old boy in the park. Too soft and too far for me to possibly hear, as he hid in the bushes from the other kids. His parents hadn’t managed to replace his blue button down parochial school uniform shirt and it separated at the buttons over his rotund little belly. He wore a sweater vest to hide the fact but summer was coming, and other kids had noticed, as they always do. He was waiting until all the other kids arrived at their houses before he finished his trek back to his slanting little row home and his mother who was sure to be furious at the delay.

And the tinkling music of Meg’s voice formed the high notes. It had a certain appeal, ancient and animal, that plucked at my excitement even at that age as she talked to my older brother.

All these notes, and many others I couldn’t place or imagine formed a voice, which felt like a woman’s, though not my mother’s (the only woman’s voice I knew at the time). It was high and winsome and low with dark portents, full of command and persuasion.

“Touch the cord, Birdie,” it sang. “Touch the cord and I’ll pull you down. Quick as lightning. All the way down…”

“No…,” I whispered my response, conscious that my brother might hear me.

“Don’t you want to go? Don’t you want to see it?”

“Where,” I demanded.

“I’ll take you down and show you everything. All the funny little things that people do. The funny little ways you all come together and fall apart. I can show you right now, if you come with me.”

“Who? My neighbors?”

“Yes, of course. Your neighbors. Everyone. It’s all so funny when you see it.”

I loved to walk around the neighborhood at that age. I loved sitting on the porch and just saying “Hi” to anyone that passed. I loved watching people (that never really changed.) It used to make my mother crazy, and these were days before parents lived in constant fear of predatory adults and disappearing children.

“I’m not allowed,” I mumbled.

“Of course you are. All you have to do is touch the cord.”

I was surprised to feel my hand itching. Thick and braided and dull metal, it looked altogether enticing, rough, and strange.

“My mom and dad will be mad…”

“You can visit. Like the old man next door. You’re allowed to visit…”

I considered that the cord wouldn’t hurt me, if I stayed clear of the jagged end. And my brother, Michael, had told me too, hadn’t he? It seemed to me at the time that maybe he had told me I should. Maybe I could touch it quickly and run after the others.

“BIRDIE!” my older brother was striding down the hill doing his best imitation of dad. Something had happened. He seemed mad. I didn’t know that Mathew had run like a bat from Hell up the hill to tell him I was acting strangely, not following, standing there talking to myself.

As Michael approached I could see his face was flushed.

“Get away from that cable,” he said.

His voice was unnaturally forceful. Underneath there was a tinge of something unusual. Perhaps fear? Nonsense. It was his story after all. His teasing lie intended to terrify his little brother.

He snatched me around the wrist like a prisoner and rounded me away from the cable.

“You can come back,” the voice called sweetly after me.

I nearly jumped. I thought for sure that the voice that wasn’t really there, that spoke in the sounds of all other things – no, not all things, sad things, sad and beautiful. I thought for sure it would disappear as soon as Michael arrived. I could hear it as he dragged me up the hill, as though it were right next to me.

“You can come back. I’ll always be here. Whenever you’re ready to come down. Whenever you’re ready to visit and see…”

Michael didn’t let go of my arm till we reached the park. In the usual way of children, I forgot about the event as quickly as it had happened. It wasn’t until a month later that I spared another thought for the cable jutting out of the ground, though it was merely at the corner of our block.

We were walking home from a Halloween party at the old fire hall, hosted by the Rotary Club, to which my Dad belonged. “Trying to drum up business,” he said, as though that meant anything at all to me.

It had been a special night for me. The Rotary Halloween family party included a costume contest and my mom had prepared special outfits for Mathew and I composed entirely of felt and glue sticks. We both had little face masks with white eyes and yellow beaks and felt capes cut into jagged feathers at the ends and heroic letters emblazoned on our chests.

She announced us as Super Owl and Little Hoot (I was Little Hoot, as the younger) and we won in our age category. They gave us real full-sized Hershey chocolate bars as the prize, which I’m convinced were a lot bigger back then. Mathew saved his, but being naturally impatient I ate mine right away and got chocolate all over my hands and face before my mother realized what I was doing. That meant we had to go home. So, there we were: my mom, my dad, and Mathew walking in the cool October night. I was still feeling pleased about my role as a super hero owl and all the chocolate.

“Mommy, what is that?”

I saw the cable again, framed against the moonlight, now looking in silhouette like some slithering serpent its coils spinning in and out of the Earth in a dark foreign ocean.

“What’s what?”

She didn’t see it. To me it was the only thing to see on that corner. She saw houses and people and trees and our whole life on that block. Nothing could have been more insignificant than my ominous little cable. I shivered at the sight of it.

“What? That cable?” my dad interrupted.

“That’s from a car accident. There was a telephone pole there and that cable was used to brace the pole. When the car hit the telephone pole, they took it away, but they left the cable.”

“Michael said it’s the Devil,” Mathew blurted.

My father laughed.

“What? No. It’s just a cable. Don’t worry. It’s still there because they set it into concrete in the ground, so it’s just harder to remove. I’m sure they’ll tear it up and take it away soon, like they did with the pole.”

It was settled. My father was right. The cord was held by concrete, not the devil. My older brother was a liar and I was a silly little kid.

“Anytime. I’ll still be here,” the voice said. Though clearly in my head, and the whispering of dark little things that scurried through the night. The secret transactions that happened under duress between silly fleshy people that come together and fall apart, sometimes even in my dreams now.

Later that night my mother found me making my way into the kitchen. I had kicked over a footstool that she used to get to high cabinets and the clattering of wood on linoleum woke her. It hadn’t woken me. I was surely walking in my sleep, though I never had before, and didn’t again for many, many, years after.

She grabbed me by my little shoulders and it brought me back to my senses. She seemed frightened and demanded to know what I was doing.

“Are you going after those jell-o squares?”

She unwittingly gave me my alibi. She had made orange jell-o squares that afternoon, but she had left them in the fridge to set, so we couldn’t have them on Halloween.

I didn’t know why I was out of bed. I didn’t know what sleep walking was or why I was in the kitchen instead of in my bed. So I did the easiest thing I could. I just nodded my head. Yes, I am trying to eat jell-o squares. Her relief greatly outweighed her irritation, and her remonstrations were gentle and motherly as she marched me back to bed.

She didn’t need to turn off the lights since I had not switched them on. But she did stop to shut and lock the kitchen door, which was strangely and uncharacteristically ajar.

That night I had a dream I was swimming underground. I went deeper and deeper, seeming to have no need to breathe. I did fantastic breast strokes, graceful turns and pirouettes, flying through soil that felt lighter than water.

Deep black soil near the surface gave way to brown and then gray, soil that was rock crushed down by centuries and pressure. I couldn’t climb back up, my shoulders were too tired, so I needed to go lower. I had a destination, and I had to get there, or I’d be stuck in between in this sea of powder grey stone.

Now I could feel the weight of it all on me, the crushing inexorable force of this grave I had dived into like an innocent fishing hole. And I could feel the heat of the deep earth on my face, as I pointed my body down still trying to claw my way to the center, to “somewhere”. Now rough little stones were tearing my fingers as I climbed and scrabbled, rocks were tearing at my shoulders and my sides.

I woke my mother up that night. After a terrible night’s sleep she was very cross and I wasn’t allowed to have chocolate near bedtime for years afterwards.

We moved out of that little row home on South Street later that year. My father had saved up to build a house on a wooded lot, well away from our corner and the mysterious cable.

Over the years to come I didn’t reflect much on those events. At least not on the cable itself. I still heard the voices sometimes, the ones that weren’t there: the sounds that were composed of the events that I did not and could not have been witnessing, heart breaks large and small, violent coming together, tearing apart and separating. Silly fleshy people.

I cracked it up to an overactive imagination. But it would be untrue to say it hadn’t effected my perceptions.

Thirty years later I had been married and divorced. I had two children, one boy and one girl, 7 years of marriage, and one day decided to put the woman who bore them behind me. She was understandably upset and, in time, unnecessarily vengeful.

I spent a lot of time with my parents. An unexpected outgrowth of the end of a long relationship is that you have to go back, way, way back to find the part of your life that existed before your relationship. Like pruning the disease off a plant, I had to cut far back into the leaf to find the part that had been untouched.

I was in the town where I grew up again. My parents were watching over the sleeping children late that night and I was out pursuing some girl, Erin, whom I had known in high school. She was unbearably boring, overall. Kept talking about her former high school clique of semi-popular girls about town, self dubbed as “the slut kittens”.

We drank Jameson Irish whiskey straight up until it was time for the bar to close. She had to drive her friend home (another one of the slut kittens) and I had my car with me, so we agreed to meet on the other side of town.

I drove hazily from down the main street and turned left. She lived off a side street that ran parallel to main.

Once I got to the general vicinity, I realized, as I often do, that although I knew roughly where the place was, I didn’t know exactly. Which in this case was as good as not knowing at all. I had drunk enough hard alcohol in quick succession that as time passed I was becoming more drunk not less, as my shocked system caught up with the harm I had caused to it.

My head was swimming and I wasn’t sure where to turn so I pulled over. It was easily 3AM and a low mist hung on the ground, making the air strangely stifled, each sound muffled by the cottony gloom.

I pushed my body out of the driver’s side door, momentarily afraid I might be sick and took a few stumbling steps down the street to clear my head. I found the place familiar. I looked to my left and there was my old house, the one I hadn’t lived in since age 4. There at the end of the block was the corner where the Devil’s cord had rested. But now it seemed empty.

I was fascinated. Giddy with excitement, I shuffled my way to the end of the block to look at the barren little patch of land where it had stood. They had never replaced the telephone pole, though the area where it used to be was still visible. There was some scraggly grass growing in patches and everal discarded beer bottles, some broken. Also a short length of stout metal pipe with threading on one end, as though it had been intended for plumbing or machinery somehow.

The cable was gone. There was no sign of it on in the soft patchy brown dirt. I felt relieved and saddened. If it was gone, then it would not “always be there” as it promised. If that part wasn’t true, then all the things it said were untrue. The Devil’s Cable itself was untrue. It was all my imagination.

In one last test on the veracity of these memories, I raised both my hands and arms even with my body as though meditating. Or as even as I could, drunk as I was, and I listened. I heard the whisper of trees. I heard the rhythmic hum of traffic. I could almost hear my brother’s voice. But nothing else. Whatever voice was there lived in my head and it was gone. I supposed I should be grateful.

Then I heard it. Was it a girl’s laughter? It could have been Erin. She was at her house, making herself a drink. But I heard the clink of two glasses. There was a boy’s voice. Trevor, whom she had been talking to at the bar, which made me kind of angry and jealous at the time. After all, she had come there with me. But Trevor was younger and better looking. She got the Patron from the shelf over his refrigerator. I could hear the clink of the glasses together. I could hear her breathing getting faster.

Then I could hear the sound of my ex-wife’s voice. She was talking, in a whisper, 40 miles away in whatever god forsaken town she had moved the kids to when she took up residence with “new guy.” They were whispering conspiratorially. Lord knew what they would say, but it was certainly nothing charitable toward me. And I could hear our old bed creaking underneath them. They would be engaged soon; the kids would have a new step dad.

I could hear the gears of my own life. Never running straight, but creaking against one another, like an out of balance machine with no clear direction.

I looked at the dirt in front of me. Surely the cable was here somewhere. I picked up the broken bottle in one hand. Then the length of threaded pipe. They both felt cool and round in my hands, which did some good for my sweaty and unsteady brain.

The length of pipe weighs 4 pounds. It’s tensile strength is 2,000 pounds. One swift blow to the back of the head will be enough to kill a person, I mused. This was not conjecture. It was reliable fact. I could hear it.

I held the broken bottle in my hand. It’s label was torn off, but the brown glass long neck fit neatly as a hilt in my hand. The jagged broken end protruded in two major places and the wicked edges glimmered like rock candy. A jagged cut across the carotid artery, with the heart pumping 45 beats per minute, would drain the body of blood in just a few minutes. Again, not imagination. I knew it was true.

I dragged my foot in the dirt, feeling like a man divining water. I heard a thud and felt my toe come up against something solid. Kicking aside leaves and dirt and debris, I saw it: a length of the old metal cable, rusted and frozen into an orange serpentine shape, covered in dirt. Just the tail end of the thing, whatever was cut off when it was extricated from the ground, laying there all these years because no one had bothered to pick it up.

I bent down over it, hungrily, dropping the bottle and the pipe, both hands outstretched to grab it.

“Speak to me,” I said out loud. “Speak to me in the wind and the voices and the pains of all of these people. Tell me things like you used to, like you always said you would.”

(There was blood, but it was surprisingly easy to clean. The back door was unlocked and I found her in the bathroom. As she started to bleed I moved her to the tub, until she was done. She stopped moving so quickly, it surprised me.)

I reached with both hands to cradle the rank, rusty little mess of wire in my hands.

“BIRDIE!”

I stopped. I had been hearing so many things. But none of them were real. This was different…I could already feel myself pulling down. Being pulled down towards the voice that lived in the earth, at the center, where it was hot.

“Birdie! What are you doing?”

I heard foot steps. My head was still swimming. “Dad?” I thought.

“Robbie?”

Mathew was standing over me, in jeans and a hooded sweat shirt. He walked up to me briskly and stopped short, his sneakered foot absent-mindedly kicking the short shriveled length of cable away from my hands.

“Jesus, Rob.”

He held out a hand. I looked at my own. They were red with fresh blood.

“Jesus, what have you done to yourself?”

I noted with relief that the blood was mine. I had cut myself on the broken glass and not even noticed, so intent was I on the voices I was hearing.

He stood me up and wrapped a handkerchief around my hand. He grabbed me around the shoulders and stood me up. I let him move me about as he wanted. I hadn’t heard the voices. Or if I did, they were coming from inside me, not from the cable or the trees or the streets or houses, as they had 30 years before. It didn’t matter now. It was all over. Matt started talking in my ear about how he didn’t know where I’d been that night, how he didn’t even know why he had driven out that way, but he had a wandering kind of feeling and he went with it.

Then he saw my car, jacked up on the curb as it was, and our old house, and me crouched in the dirt clutching garbage.

He sat me down in the passenger side of his old station wagon and closed the door soundly behind me, as it tended to stick. Then he walked back to the corner where he found me. I stopped breathing as I saw him casually pick up an unusual sinewy piece of debris. He lifted it up to his shoulder like he was throwing a boomerang and it gleamed momentarily in the moonlight. He tossed it overhand across the street and into the woods on the other side like the inert piece of garbage it was.

Nothing happened. He touched the cord and wasn’t yanked down to Hell. Michael was wrong after all. No voices anymore. No secrets of the little pains and failures of the people around me. Now that I’m older, it just doesn’t seem so funny anymore anyway. No devil took him down to Hell that night. Nor me.

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4 Responses to “The Devil’s Cord”

  1. sharkspeare Says:

    I am almost glad I didn’t read this at night. This is a really cool, creepy story. Started out very Tell-Tale Heartish which of course delighted me.
    You have quite an imagination.

    Like

  2. hushmel Says:

    A few things from this story are going to stick with me for a long time. The first is the sensual feeling of the devil whispering to me (well, Birdie, but we’re all Birdie right?) in the sounds of the earth’s collected sadness. That’s brilliant. I demand a poem from you on that topic.

    The second was what the devil said to Birdie about showing him how we fleshy things come together and fall apart. Or do we tear each other apart? And then my (Birdie’s) morbid fascination with seeing and knowing these things. Yes, tell me all the sick, sad, wayward thoughts we puny humans have! Take me down through the layers of hell! Beautiful.

    The third was this line: “Like pruning the disease off a plant, I had to cut far back into the leaf to find the part that had been untouched.” I’ve been trying to do that lately. Would be so much easier if I could really look at me like a plant and find the diseased parts. Not quite so easy with a soul.

    Thanks for sharing this. It was a wee bit anti-climatic, but well worth the read. Reminded me a lot of something Flannery O’Connor would write. If you’re not familiar with her, I’d recommend checking out her short stories before you rewrite. The Southern Grotesque style might inspire you.

    Like

  3. These are the moments when we renew the promises with our past and feel the strong scent of memories. Fantasies supposed to be veil of secrets, but shaping them with inconspicuous moments of spent is apprised pledge.

    Very beautifully captured the series of events, meetings and departures, discovering friends, loosing love, precious moments, adoring family. Most of the time big droplet tears form yesterday been dried in time of tomorrow and broken memories of a happy yesteryear handed over to foggy past and never been dust off.

    You will look back on the times you laughed and you might cry. You will look back on the times you cried, and you would laugh. This is best vice-versa I might put together for this post.

    You will always remember that’s devil’s cord and chocolate filled face you might have wiped with whole arm. Beauty that dies the soonest has the longest life. Perhaps that’s what happened, it cannot keep itself for a day back then, so you kept it forever in memory. This is how we give them immortality.

    Like

  4. Dieverdog Says:

    Very well written and compelling story. I agree about it resembling Flannery O’Connor – her stuff is great. I hope you post more stories.

    Like

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