There but for the Grace

The crow refused to blink. The dark, hard obsidian of its eyes conveyed an inhuman awareness of its surroundings, acute but soulless, absorbing light from the abandoned mill and the soft, rotting bricks where the feathered beast perched. Its rapt attention recalled its Jurassic ancesters, raptorous hunters who had dominated their food chain. The dark, dirty foul stood as a poor legacy of these ancient masters of a bygone world – but something in the attitude of its posture still alluded to that proud, distant heritage. “I was here before you, and I will be here after you,” Its eyes seemed to say.

Of course, that could all be in my head, I thought as I threw another rock at the bird where it sat, four stories above me. Not even close. I swore under my breath.
I looked around for something – anything – else to do. Ricardo was never on time. I shouldn’t have expected this meet up to be any different. Ricardo – Richard Wateley Chambers IV – was a friend, true. After a fashion at least. His intentions were pure. But something about being a “IV” seemed to remove him from the day-to-day responsibilities that bind the rest of society. The obligation to be on time was simply not built into his makeup.

Languidly, I picked up another rock. It felt odd to be in an urban center, and yet to see no sign of other life beside the obstinate crow and the large, silent family of millipedes skittering about the field of stones where I waited. Providence possessed the tightly formed eddies of an older city, a city containing unique history in each and every block, where generations still reached out from the past through the architecture and renovations of their times, lingering beneath newer paint, stucco, or – heaven forbid – loosening vinyl siding.
I considered my own home, a hundred-and-twenty year old building of no particular historic value, because its age wasn’t unusual in my neighborhood: A neighborhood that left me three blocks from million-dollar condos in one direction and three blocks from corner-side crack vendors in another.

My area of specialty lay in those remnants of Providence’s gilded age, when its role as the birthplace of the industrial revolution secured its position as a center of innovation and progress in early manufacturing. The latest and greatest in industrial complexes, mill complexes themselves the size of small cities, had been constructed. Often these monuments to bygone industry had featured brutal child labor and atrocious conditions, accompanied by the latest advances and innovations. An uncomfortable partnership of the modern and the macabre.

I had studied the era in depth on my way to my architectural thesis. And so this particular, population-free eddy of the city was no surprise to me. The vacant, gaping windows staring out from the multifaceted structure lose their power of intimidation when you’ve stared into so many of them. I appreciated the eccentric skyline created by the many angles and structures – massive chimneys and floors built atop other floors across a few hundred years of use and repurposing, expansion and contraction, polished off with decades of abandonment and disuse.

I threw the rock. Not even close. But the coal-eyed crow alighted none-the-less, at its own unhurried pace, as a black BMW, shiny on the top and dusty on the bottom, pulled in next to my old green El Camino.

Ricardo was out in a flash, with an excited wave as I headed toward him.

“What do you think?”

“It’s magnificent.”

“I thought you’d appreciate it!”

As we approached, the smells of rotten stagnation and moldy brick became stronger. Ricardo unlocked the large wooden main door, and the smell became almost a third companion on our expedition.

“What is this place, though, beyond the obvious?” I asked. And why did he want me here, I wondered.

“Did I ever tell you about my great aunt Constance?”

“Not that I remember.” Like many old Providence families, Ricardo’s had more twisted branches than a tree drawn by Edward Gorey. “Although I’d expect only a great aunt to have a name like Constance.”

“Yeah, I’d pretty much forgotten she existed too. Really old, even when I was a kid. We’d visit her and she’d terrify me by giving me gummi worms. Not a bag – one at a time. She’d reach out with one of these talons, looking like a witch out of a Grimm’s tale, clutching gummi worms. I had to eat them right away. She’d watch, then grab my cheek and pinch it.”
The door opened into a gaping maw of darkness, abstract and impenetrable. Until Ricardo shook the powerful flashlight in his hand to life and used it to pierce the darkness. He tossed a second flashlight to me. The beams gradually revealed the detail lurking beyond the door. A small set of stairs led down to a room with a large cast-iron table and a door beyond.

“So, she passed away a little while ago and – surprise, surprise – she owned this place.”

“And she left it to you.”

He had moved on to the second door, hulking and metal. It took some shoulder strength to convince it to turn on its long-dormant hinges, releasing decades of silence that echoed around the massive chamber beyond.

“Yep. I think she probably could only remember a few relatives, at the end. She had no kids. I’m not sure who got the good stuff, but I got this. Untouched by mortal hands for decades. I got this and a note.”

His expansive, all-encompassing gesture fell far short when measured against the size of the room, clearly once an industrial floor that would have been occupied by dozens or even hundreds of hard working laborers.

“And you’re looking for advice on reuse?”

“Nope. Not ready for that. But I do have a specific question. I’ll show you.”

He headed for the far end of the cavernous space. Grey brown light filtered in through the dust and time-tested glass of small windows far above.

“That’s mysterious and vague.”

“Yep.”

“What did the note say?”

The beams of light caught so much dust as we walked toward the far end, it felt like you could touch them – columns of brown debris, interlaced with the solid concrete and steel columns that held up the once proud, distant ceiling.

“Glad you asked. It was pretty hard to decipher. She hand wrote it, near the end. But it was short and I memorized it.”

“How enterprising of you.”

“If you find it, don’t open it. It’s too soon.”

“Find what?”

“No idea. ‘Mysterious and Vague, one might say.”

They stopped in front of a series of immense brick ovens, a massive stone and brick chimney belonged to each. All were scorched and blackened from decades of powerful flames. Who knew how often metal had been smelted in those ovens, and by how many men.

“That’s the whole note?”

“It is. But I think she was referring to …”

Not far from the ovens was a formidable metal covering over a round space in the floor, 10 or 12 feet in diameter.

“… This. It’s what I wanted your opinion on.”

“My opinion?”

I kicked the edge of the strange circle. It was not unheard of for a mill to have a refuse pit. Or even a water well – constant cooling was helpful for some of the machinery that might have graced a hall like this. And the propensity buildings like this had for horrible fires – well, water couldn’t always help, but sometimes it was helpful to have in the building.
But I’d never heard of a well or refuse pit being locked down beneath a massive metal lid. What would be the sense of that?

“Opinion. Thoughts. Yeah. As in, what the hell is this? Is there any actual reason not to open it? What would they have kept in here? And, for that matter, how are we supposed to open it?”

I had no idea. It was a bit odd to realize that, and it left my stomach torn on the one side, a strange mix of uneasiness and dread; on the other, a powerful curiosity. What might lie beneath? Was I about to learn something new about the underpinnings of 19th century mill construction? Was there some architectural anomaly peculiar to this particular mill?
The how part of Ricardo’s question, however, was much easier to address. Looking around the giant circular cap, I was able to find a crank shaft. A key of sorts could be inserted and rotated to roll back the heavy metal cover. I crouched low to inspect the mechanism.

“Somewhere here, there’s a crank that fits in here. Probably looks like a great big crow bar that’s bent in half.” I explained, beginning to look around.

“Crank. OK. But what is it?”

I didn’t want to admit I had no idea. Maintaining an air of mystery seemed far more effective. Whatever was revealed, I was sure I could jump in with an explanation after I’d seen what was down there. I held on to my distracted silence and kicked around, looking for anything among the strewn rebar and steel that might pass for a crank.
The sound of each step reverberated in the great chamber. Metal clanged, and dust and mold rose into the air in full, sedate clouds. Ricardo emerged from a nook on the side of the room, holding an old chunk of metal.

“Like this?”

It slid into the nook and caught with a satisfying clunk.

“So, old chap. Is there any good reason not to do this?”

“I can’t think of any.”

“Gas pockets? Poison gas?” He seemed almost eager to find a reason not to explore this curiosity.

I furrowed my brow. Natural gas leaks certainly happened. But this structure’s latest upgrades clearly predated the natural gas pipes that ran beneath most of the city. And a lid like this certainly wouldn’t be how mill owners of the last century would have dealt with that kind of problem. In fact, I still couldn’t think of anything they would have dealt with this way. Refuse pits were common, but not locked-down ones.

“I can’t think of anything dangerous – but there’s only one way to find out.”

I leaned against it, but the years since it had last been cranked – whenever that might have been – had not been kind to the mechanism. I pressed against it. Where it was placed, I could not see the metal cover, but I could feel the tiniest budge. I pushed harder, sweat breaking out on my brow. Ricardo watched expectantly for a moment, smiling. I shot him a look, my face flushed with exertion, and he took up a position on the other side of the crank, adding his weight to mine.

Motion! Grating, screeching, painfully slow motion. But motion nonetheless, as they cranked in unison, and heard the ages grinding away from the cover as it was peeled back.
With one forceful, final sweaty crank they felt as much as heard the massive round slab thud into place. They stepped back around to peer into what lay beneath. There was no well. There was no pit. What lay beneath was immediately below the peeled back cover. Milky whiteness around the very edges – a circle of diabolical color, thin and shimmering, within. And in the center, a giant, perfectly round, reflective black pool.

The giant metal cover – not metal at all, in fact, but something far tougher and aeons older – slid closed on its own for a brief moment, sending the crank flying across the room. Both of us realized we had not dared to even draw a breath.

And then, it blinked.

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