Monsters by Melanie Figg

grassy old cemetery

He was our vampire, though we didn’t know his name. We didn’t know much. Just that he was buried in the middle of our town Green. As a kid, I liked the fact of him. It helped me understand how history led to now, made the past less of an abstraction. It made me think we were special somehow.

He’d died of consumption almost two hundred years ago, one of the Corwin brothers, and after members of his family started dying, too, the town leaders dug him up. Many people back then believed that family members were dying because their dead relatives were feeding on them. It happened all over New England, dozens of documented cases, and undoubtedly others that remain undocumented. Secrets taken to the grave—still a common practice in families.

*

Walking back from my friend’s house in the hot sprawl of summer, I cut through the Green to dinner. The Green was the heart of our New England town, a divided ellipse surrounded by the Public Library, the Inn, the Courthouse, and a handful of white wooden houses with forest green shutters. In the center of the Green was a small booth where tourists found out about bed and breakfasts, antique shops, and nearby ski trails. But to residents, the Green was the axis for parades, the site of church rummage sales, and the place where teenagers smoked clove cigarettes and strummed Beatles’ songs.  

A vague town legend said there was a vampire buried beneath the center where the gravel paths crossed, and that if you crossed that spot and heard the vampire’s pounding heart, you were in danger of attack. As I approached the center intersection, dusk folded the sky a shade darker and my heart began to beat faster. I sang to myself and crossed my fingers behind my back. Everyone I knew did some ritual of prevention, including some adults. Some masked their wariness by speeding up, talking louder, or mentioning the outrageousness of the legend as they passed the center of the Green. But these were all feeble attempts to hold back the demon that haunted us. 

*

No one understood the science of contagion back then. The young field of allopathic medicine was a mess. Herbal healing women and midwives had been driven out by a few hundred years of smear campaigns, burnings, and other domestic terrorisms. You might still find a competent local healer on the sly, but by the 19th century, it was medical men and their leeches, bloodletting, and lots of lead and arsenic cures. Doctors were so sure of themselves and their theories, despite their lousy success rate.

But if I lived in the 1800s and died of consumption — what we now call tuberculosis — wouldn’t I come back and feed on the mean girl in my class, rather than on my sister or my mother? What were these guys thinking?

*

I am writing this during a global pandemic. We’ve been in lockdown for over nine months. No, to call it a lockdown assumes there’s been a plan. In a leadership void, we’ve all been on our own, cherry-picking headlines, winging it, creating self-imposed rules of isolation. Kind of how we’ve always done.

*

It didn’t matter that most of us knew nothing factual. Even as a girl, I knew that the story gained power from its uncertainty, the small scatter of facts only making it more believable. He was down there waiting, and I was alone, and it was getting dark. I was sure my rituals to guard against attack would fail and the monster would unearth itself, lunge at my ankles, and drag me down to its dark chamber.

*

When I was a girl, I was touched wrong by someone I trusted not to do that. Each time it happened, I would brace to disappear and whittle away. It left a mark: a permanent purple marker of shame and wariness, my eyes spoiled plums.

*

Our nation’s leader is a documented predator. Since the 1970s, he has preyed on dozens and dozens of women and girls. He gobbles up tabloids and buys the rights to stories so his secrets stay buried. I was 50 years old before I learned rich men could buy the truth to hide it.

*

I was a good student. In elementary school, I chose our town vampire as the subject of my social studies research paper, desperate to learn why I’d been chosen as prey, and how to stop the ghoulish routine that made me fly from my body and perch in the dogwood, watching.

I told the librarian the subject for my paper. She handed me a thin manila folder with a dog-eared photocopy of an October 1890 newspaper article about the Corwin boy, who died in 1830. The Vermont Standard was still around but it was not the paper my parents got delivered. I was doing grown-up research!

The front-pagestory told how dozens of town officials and prominent residents watched as the Corwin boy was dug up. They burned his heart in a pot in the middle of the Green where I still held my breath.

*

Nowadays, rogue vapors move through our streets and scientists are being fired one by one. Nurses kill themselves from exhaustion. Many people fear their own air as they lie awake, keeping count. Masked men sell fake remedies while the hospital beds fill.

*

When I re-read The Vermont Standard article now, after decades of believing it, it seems totally implausible. I mean: “To be particular in dates, the incident happened about the middle of June, 1830”? That’s the kind of witticism my dad would like. The October article was clearly some intentional fake news for the Halloween season, some badly written Victorian scare run amok. This is the vampire I trusted in my youth?

The librarian must have known. I must have looked so naïve to her. Betrayed by yet another adult. I still find myself enraged by the fact that the Corwin vampire never existed. I hate myself for being such a sucker.

*

So, I went searching again and found an entire book about the New England vampires, the book I thought I’d write. Folklorist Michael Bell tracked down and documented over twenty vampires from the late 1700s to 1898, more than two hundred years after the Salem Witch Trials.

He debunked the Corwin story as a mishmash of spooky tropes: an empty grave, the blood of a bullock, the smell of sulphur, the earth shaking, random smoke. Not to mention the unnamed journalist who got the family genealogy wrong, the cemetery wrong, and many of the spectators’ names wrong. All that vagueness, all those half-truths that gave readers like me a story to hold on to, to conjure and carry forward, as if we were learning history instead of being captivated by a good story. Like a good academic, Bell snickered at the scruffy, quaint days of junk science and fake news as he untangled the vampire stories and traced them back to their folklore roots.

*

It was a secret, the shameful attention I got from him. A special treat that made me proud and appalled, confused and worried, as he fed on my good girl behavior of silence and self-doubt. I guess I was irresistible.

*

I was relieved to learn that we did still have a vampire, a real one, before the Corwin yarn. Bell had uncovered the exhumation of Frederick Ransom in his book. Frederick’s brother Daniel told the story in his unpublished memoirs in the town’s History Center. (O primary resources! O literature! O archivists!) Daniel Ransom, the youngest of a distinguished New England family, writes about his older brother Frederick who attended Dartmouth College and died at the age of twenty:

“It has been related to me that there was a tendency in our family to Consumption and that I, whom now in 1894 am over eighty years old, would die with it before I was thirty. It seems that Father shared somewhat in the idea of hereditary diseases and withal has some superstition, for it was said that if the heart of one of the family who dies of consumption was taken out and burned, others would be free from it.”

When other Ransoms became infected — coughing blood, skin shining blue and translucent, readying to ascend — Dr. Frost and Daniel’s father had Frederick’s body exhumed: standard medical procedure in 1817. They gathered in Captain Pearson’s blacksmith forge and burned Frederick’s heart.

Burn the vampire, stop his nightly feedings, spare his family. Simple enough. But his mother, sister, and two brothers ended up dying anyway. We’ve always known disease is often stronger than remedy. Today, the dead are stacked in warehouses, and the body counts are deleted from the internet.

*

I remember no words. It was more a mood of pleading that came from his hissing mouth.

He was cautious and gentle, a totally different person when it was time to get touched. I couldn’t reconcile the two of them, or the two of me. I was divided. It was easy to unlatch my mind and move into the denim strand of the braided rug, unraveling away from the tight blue center, or vanish into the tongues of my red Keds, loosely laced and dangling from two small feet.

All my work to avoid the demon under The Green had been useless; here he was, but not really. Neither of us really there, staring out.

*

My vampires are dug up for yet another morality tale in a July 2018 issue of the regional paper, The Valley News. The reporter is named this time, but she sounds very young, and at one point cites the Encyclopedia Britannica.

This story of exhumations — one real, one fake — has more science (“today we know the airborne disease is caused by breathing in the rod-shaped bacillus bacteria”), and facts from the CDC (“tuberculosis…killed one in seven people in the United States in the nineteenth century”), and an interview with a named local historian (“We’ve done some research, we are unable to verify any of the facts”), and a quaint hackneyed conclusion.

No mention of the Plague yet to come.

*

Our nation’s leader hustles the hoax and nearly dies from a disease he pretends doesn’t exist. His ideas of science, race, and manhood are decidedly eighteenth century. The headlines say a vaccine is coming for the rest of us.

*

Slowly, over years, I remembered in bits and pieces: a movie my body projected, flickering scattered images across my skin until I was forced to wake up and watch.

Living inside of a misused body is to live outside of it. I didn’t know that division would haunt my life, make adulthood a remote town far from trust and kindness. Still, I carry those fruitless attempts memorized at the crossroads on the Green. When the rest of the world started to social distance to stay safe, I barely even noticed. What took you all so long?

Meet the Contributor

Melanie FiggMelanie Figg is a poet and essayist, currently working on a hybrid memoir. Her award-winning poetry collection, Trace, was named one of the “Best Indie Books of 2020” by Kirkus Reviews. A recent recipient of an NEA fellowship, she has work published or forthcoming in dozens of literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Nimrod, The Rumpus, and the American Journal of Poetry. Melanie teaches writing throughout the D.C. metro area, as well as privately. As a certified professional coach, she offers women’s writing retreats and works remotely with writers on their manuscripts as well as their creative process. www.melaniefigg.net

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Joshua Morley/Flickr Creative Commons

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