Semper letteris mandate
In June of 1967, I was ten years old and my younger brother, Russell, was twelve. Canada was about to celebrate its Centennial, the Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup for the last time, and Russell decided to kill Satan, the Prince of Darkness and Father of Lies.
Perhaps this needs some explanation. The reason I call Russell my “younger” brother, although he was (and still is) two years older, is because he has always maintained a peculiar innocence and purity of purpose: the “eternal child” as it were.
Take, for instance, the matter of Santa Claus. In 1967 Russell still believed the basic elements of the story and had worked out a complicated theory involving quantum mechanics to explain the more troublesome details. By incorporating Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Russell had established to his own satisfaction that it was possible to visit every spot on the globe within twenty-four hours. He was even able to explain, by a modification to the fourth equation, how Santa could enter homes without being detected, regardless of whether or not they had chimneys.
We were living in a small village called Marshtown, located a few miles southwest of Welland. Marshtown got its name from the fields of peat marshes which surrounded it. Every summer these caught fire from underground combustion and spread clouds of ground-level smoke throughout the area. This effect, like the Reversing Falls in New Brunswick, was known far and wide. As a result, during the tourist season, Marshtown’s population underwent a wide fluctuation since many families took the opportunity to go elsewhere and be tourists.
When school let out that year, Russell and I hung around in the Marshtown Public Library. This was a new feature for the village. It consisted of one room in the basement of the village’s only three-story building. In the 1800′s this structure had been an inn; now, however, it was a “multiple-residence unit” housing four families. It was a source of pride to the community that, like the big cities of Welland, Port Colborne and Dunnville, we too had an apartment building. The librarian was a nice old lady with shockingly orange hair and such a strong Scottish accent that nobody was sure what her name was. When she first introduced herself to me, I thought she said her name was Mrs. MacKlaren, but Russell swore it was Mrs. MacCarthy. Father Dodsworthy called her Mrs. MacNaughton and Reverend Shaw called her Mrs. MacNollen. The Post Mistress, Irene, knew her as Mrs. Mahoney but covered all the angles by sending her any mail addressed to an unfamiliar name.
One June day, as we were exploring the library shelves, Russell discovered a book about the evils of Satanism. Included was a complete ritual for raising the devil, presumably meant as a guide to help the interested reader differentiate between a black mass and a cub-scout meeting — (a distinction many scout leaders have puzzled over late on sleepless nights). When he checked it out, the librarian bobbed her orange hair in a friendly fashion, smiled angelically, and said, “Aye, yeel ken a loot aboot auld Clooty afore yeer doon.”
We both just nodded.
All that evening Russell studied his book. Shortly before bedtime, our mother gave us a couple of homemade popsicles as a treat. These were made by mixing up a strong batch of Kool-Aid, pouring it into plastic molds, and then putting them into the freezer. I began to eat mine immediately, but Russell sat staring at his for so long it formed a puddle on the table.
In bed, after our lights had been turned out and the grownups were downstairs watching The Tonight Show, Russell hissed at me.
“I’ve got a plan.”
I was still limping from his last plan which had involved jumping off the front of the root-cellar (a 12-foot drop), with a bed-sheet tied to my ankles and wrists. His intentions were always good (in this case he had been trying to invent a method to escape from burning buildings), but the results were rapidly repaving the road to hell.
“This is the biggest yet.”
“We can end all misery on earth.”
“How the heck are you going to end all misery on earth?” I asked, regretting it immediately.
“I’m going to kill Satan.”
The idea had come to him while reading the Satanic ritual. If you could conjure up Satan, he reasoned, then you should also be able to ambush him. The problem, as he saw it, was to find an effective weapon.
“When Mom gave us the popsicles, I had my answer,” he said, knowing it would be impossible for me not to comment.
“You’re going to kill Satan with a popsicle?!”
“I’m going to get some holy water from the Catholic church, freeze it in one of the molds, file the end to a point, and then when he appears, I’m going to stab him through the heart.”
“Right. You’re going to kill Satan with a sharpened popsicle.”
“I would prefer,” he said slowly, “to call it a Pope-sicle.”
I could tell he had been waiting for hours to say that.
We started preparations the next day by filling a canteen from the font inside Our Lady of the Marshes. Russell, who didn’t want the sin of stealing on his conscience, especially when he was about to engage in mortal combat with the Prince of Darkness and all, left behind a dollar bill with an unsigned note explaining that the water was going to a good cause.
Over the next week, we collected as many of the materials mentioned in the book as possible. Mostly we were forced to use substitutes, the way a cook does when making roast pork for a vegetarian. For instance, the “Hand of Glory” (a hand cut from a murderer’s corpse) proved impossible to find. Instead we had to settle for the claw from a particularly vicious rooster that had pecked a hole in the tire of the family car while standing underneath, thereby accidentally breaking its own neck. Salt was easy to get, but mandrake root was replaced by ginger.
I can still see Russell rummaging through Grandma’s pantry, complaining about her mundane spices while shoving aside bottles of cinnamon, allspice, and belladonna.
On the appointed evening we snuck out. Russell’s “magic icicle” was wrapped in Saran Wrap and stored in a thermos of crushed ice. We wandered for almost half an hour before finding a suitable spot. Peat-smoke covered the ground to a depth of three feet, completely obscuring anything beneath it. It was Russell’s idea that Satan would be more likely to show up if the environment was familiar to him.
As we performed the ritual I felt an odd tension in the air, and for the first time actually believed it might work. Unsurprisingly, this was not at all reassuring and my voice cracked several times as I gave the memorized responses, none of which made any sense in the first place. At the height of the ceremony, Russell threw some powder into the fire. As it flared, he shouted the command: “Satan come forth.”
Then, a deep rumble began to shake the ground. I was paralyzed with the most mind-numbing fear I had ever experienced, and just when it seemed nothing could make it worse — something did. Hovering above the mist a towering figure bore down on us. Even allowing for the magnifying properties of panic it stood at least ten feet tall. It made no walking motion but simply glided, a pale, gigantic shape leering down upon us. The rumbling increased with every passing second, and the fiend closed in for the kill. I could see its face clearly, frowning, with circles under its penetrating eyes, its great jowls lined in shadow.
Just when it looked like the evening of June 23rd would end in the dismemberment of two young boys, Russell earned my lifelong admiration. His icy weapon held high above his head, he launched himself like a striking snake and shoved the glittering spike into the demon’s breast with an ease that could only have been caused by the guidance and strength of Divine intervention.
Now I realize that to the reader it probably seems unbelievable — me being able to remember that the date was June 23rd after all these years — but the reason has to do with a peculiarity of Marshtown history.
Marshtown was founded sometime in the middle of the 19th century by an Englishman who had made his fortune in gold mines.
Unfortunately, the mines didn’t actually contain any gold as such, and his fortune was that he managed to escape England in time to keep what little he had of it. Upon arriving in Canada, he settled in the Niagara region, where he discovered hundreds of acres of combustible peat. Certain that he could sell it for fuel, he founded the community of Marshtown and went into business. Neither he, nor those few who joined him, seemed to consider the full implications of the vast forests covering most of the countryside. For a time the industrious band of peat-merchants tried to interest farmers in their product, but the farmers stubbornly continued to burn the trees they cut while clearing their land. As a result, the villagers were compelled to reorient their economic base. Unable to sell the peat as fuel, they instead mixed it with whole grain alcohol and sold it as “The Marshtown Miracle Restorative.”
The 20th century found Marshtown gradually leaving behind its tradition in patent medicine. With the advent of the car it became possible to live in Marshtown and work in Welland or Port Colborne. By the end of WWII, the village had become a tiny bastion of office clerks. When Canada’s Centennial arrived In 1967, communities across the land held events to celebrate both their own and their country’s origins. Not wanting to be left out (especially since government grants were involved), the people of Marshtown decided to honour their founder.
The problem was, nobody knew his name, nor the date on which the incorporation of the village had taken place.
Although the original legal document still existed, most of it was completely unreadable, including signatures and dates. No other records existed. No tombstone could be found. The only thing the founder had left to posterity, besides the village itself, was an advertising slogan painted on the side of the original general store. This had lasted long enough to be photographed in 1919 and the photograph was now part of the library archives. It read:
The people of Marshtown finally decided that if they couldn’t find out the information, they’d make it up. To this end a committee was formed and, after several months of arguments, announced that Marshtown had been founded by one Clarence Whipplespoon on June 24th, 1867.
Conveniently, this was exactly one week before the big Centennial celebrations of July 1st — called Dominion Day back then.
Since Centennial Year was a year of celebration, it seemed like a good idea to have a Founder’s Day Parade for our first Founder’s Day. Many letters were sent to the committee endorsing the idea. When Russell heard about these letters he had muttered, “Huh. Fan mail for a founder?” but, as was often the case, I had no idea what he was talking about.
For the parade, our local carpenter, Mr. Stravosky, and his son, Jim, promised a surprise. They refused to tell anyone what it was, saying only, “You’ll see, you’ll see,” and since they lived about a mile outside the village, and worked in their shed, nobody could easily spy on them.
Their plan, as it turned out, was to build a huge papier-mache statue of Clarence Whipplespoon (using as a model their hero, former prime minister John Diefenbaker), place it on a cart and offer it for the central float in the procession.
And it was this that they were wheeling down the road the night before Founder’s Day, when suddenly, out of the smoke-covered ground, a screaming young boy sprang up and stabbed it with an icicle.
And that explains why I can recall the date so clearly.
Naturally, the event caused a certain amount of confusion. Russell was yelling, “Die, you fiend from hell!” while Mr. Stravosky inexplicably began to kick one of the wheels and shout, “Damn the atomic bomb! Damn the atomic bomb!” His son, Jim, meanwhile, took off across the marsh and couldn’t be found until morning.
Eventually everything was sorted out, at least as much as could be expected. It turned out that Mr. Stravosky had been harboring a secret fear that radiation from nuclear testing was scrambling the brains of the young people.
I’m not sure our explanation that Russell and I had simply mistaken a parade float of John Diefenbaker for Satan, and tried to kill it with frozen holy water, did much to change his mind.
Ultimately, no serious damage was done. The statue was repaired by morning. Mr. Stravosky covered the hole with what looked to be a large war medal. Underneath the silver spray paint, however, you could still make out the words: “1st Prize, Pumpkin, 1958.”
And of course, as is to be expected in a small community, word of the incident spread like wildfire, and people talked of nothing else through the whole parade.
“Can you believe it?” said Father Dodsworthy to Reverend Shaw. “The kid actually tried to ice the devil!”
Mr. Wentmore, the owner of the general store, remarked, “If he’d had the sense to go for the real Diefenbaker back when he was still in office we’d all be better off,” which resulted in a fist fight with Mr. Trenton who was a staunch Conservative.
We were all much relieved when the day was over and we could put the past behind us. My own nerves had been pretty well shot since the night before, and it wasn’t until we were settled into bed that evening that I truly began to relax.
And then, just as I was dropping off to sleep I heard a sound that chilled me to the bone.
“I’ve got a plan,” hissed Russell.