It all started with a Dutchman, a Pennsylvania Dutchman named Peter Scheinberger, who tilled a weather beaten farm back in the hills.
A strong, wiry man he was--his arms were knotted sections of solid hickory forming themselves into gnarled hands and twisted stubs of fingers. His furrowed brow, dried by the sun and cracked in a million places by the wind was well irrigated by long rivulets of sweat. When he went forth in the fields behind his horse and plow, it wasn’t long before his hair was plastered down firmly to his scalp. The salty water poured out of the deep rings in his ruddy neck and ran down his dark brown back. As he grew older the skin peeled and grew loose. It hung on him in folds like the brittle hide of a rhino.
It seemed that the more years he spent in his fields behind the plow horse, the more he slipped back into the timeless tradition of his forefathers. He was a proud descendant of a long line of staunch German settlers commonly known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. He grew up in his fundamental, religious sect having never known any other environment. He was exposed to the sun, soil, and wind from the early days of his childhood, and along with the elements he also was exposed to the evils of the hexerei. The hexerei, or witchcraft, was something that was never doubted or scoffed at by his people. Then why should he, a good Pennsylvania Dutchman, doubt or scoff at such tradition?
Perhaps, had he moved away from his ancestral lands and had been cultured in modern communities, been educated and raised in other schools, he might have matured. But having no time for any other diversions than might be found on his rustic homestead, he grew up behind the plow horse, tramping in the dark, stony pasture land, eking out his meager existence from the black fields of Pennsylvania.
Now, Peter’s life could have gone on unnoticed among these forgotten hills, except for the strange visit of Martin G. Mirestone, student of German history.
It was a cold night when Peter met Mirestone. Peter had been sitting up rather late pondering over an old, yellowed book by the light of a kerosene lamp. The pale flame flickered about the walls sending shadows scurrying back and forth creating all types of weird shapes and designs. Peter huddled over the withered pages, every now and then glancing up at the walls to watch the fantastic games that light and dark were playing. Then putting his book aside for the night he prepared to go to bed.
He went over to the window to draw the shutters, stopping for an instant to peer out into the gloom along the stony path that ran from his house to an old foot-bridge about fifty feet away. Curling up from the gorge, mist seemed to play among the rotted planks; it rose and fell in great billowing blankets, sometimes concealing the structure from view.
Peter was about to latch the shutter and leave when his attention was focused upon a figure that seemed to emerge from the fog--sort of fading in from nowhere. It made its way across the narrow span like some ghostly apparition. The mist enveloped his legs and clouded his features. Peter drew back in terror, for the mere appearance of the man coming out of the darkness was enough to fill his infant brain with visions of death and hexerei.
As the figure drew closer Peter saw that it was wearing a cloak. All the more ghostly it appeared with the cloak sailing behind him in the wind like some devil’s banner. Peter just stood transfixed as he watched the stranger come up the winding road to his house.
Slamming the shutter he hurriedly fastened it and then turned to the door to bolt that also. Too late. The door was thrown open revealing a tall man clothed in black. His face was wreathed in a wide grin--a grin that seemed to make fun of the grayish pallor of his face and the ominous appearance of his wild garb. Before the man stepped inside, Peter made a mental image of the scene, for it was to be firmly imbedded in his mind so that he would never forget the slightest detail for the rest of his life--the wind blowing about the fierce visage, tossing up the long strands of hair; the massive, veined hand that clutched the wrought iron thumb-latch, and the way that the lamp struck his face, highlighting the thin, ridged nose and high cheekbones.
“Peter Scheinberger, heh?” the man spoke in perfect German. “Peter Scheinberger, the last of your clan here in America.”
It was several seconds before Peter could muster up enough courage to answer him. Drawing back slowly he braced himself against the table, and in a thick, guttural German asked, “Who are you?”
The stranger shut the door and drew the bolt. He crossed the room and, with an air of one who was accustomed to having his own way wherever he went, scanned the shelves of Peter’s larder with a practiced eye.
Peter watched him closely as he drew down a bottle of wine, broke the neck against a beam above him, and settled down in Peter’s easy chair. He poured a glass full and shoved it across the table towards the anxious Peter, and then poured another glass for himself.
“Mirestone,” the stranger finally answered, “Martin G. Mirestone.” Then, draining his glass, he added, “Student of German history.”
All this was beyond Peter’s comprehension. No one ever had the audacity to walk into his house and help himself to whatever he wanted--he was indeed unheard of in his tiny social world.
“Well, what are you staring at?” Mirestone boomed out. “Take my cloak, please, then be seated. We’ll talk.”
Taking the cloak and draping it over a wooden peg in the wall, Peter moved cautiously around the foreboding character that monopolized his small house. Carefully seating himself opposite the man, he moved the table so that it set between them as a protective barrier.
“I’ll make myself clear to you,” Mirestone explained, “For I want my stay to be as brief as possible.”
He poured himself another glass of wine, then settled back in the chair, half closing his eyes. “You see, I am a student, you might say, of German history or folklore. I am in the process of writing a collective history of the Pennsylvania Dutch folk, their habits, beliefs, and--” he broke off for an instant as he leaned forward across the table, staring into the frightened eyes of Peter “--and their superstitions.”
Shifting his chair around in order to get benefit from the heat of the fireplace, Mirestone went on. “Now I want facts, Scheinberger, authentic facts. I am prepared to pay you well for your trouble, but I insist on information that is backed up with sound, accurate truth.”
Peter became more relaxed but still slightly uneasy. He didn’t like the attitude of this man, Mirestone. He was too sure of himself--altogether too cocky. But then on the other hand he had said there would be a financial gain from any business that he could transact with him. Money was something that Peter knew he needed in order to keep his farm going, and any income, however small it may be, would be welcomed gratefully. Yes, he decided that he had better endure the rudeness of this man.
For a few seconds, however, the tall stranger seemed to lose all of his cockiness, and a somber look crept over his jovial features. “Have you ever heard of the hex of the white feather?”
Peter thought a moment before he replied. “Yes. I have heard of it.” Then nervously he fingered his glass of wine that he had not as yet touched. Raising it up to his lips he sipped it slowly as he stared at Mirestone over the rim of the glass. “Yes. I have heard of it,” he repeated.
“Good, good. You have heard of it. Now, you will tell me about it, of course. I want to know all about it--how it is practiced, the results, and so forth.”
“Is that why you came here? Only to learn of the white feather hex?”
Mirestone climbed to his feet and paced the room. “Yes,” he said. Peter noted a sad tone in his voice, and he waited for him to say more.
“Yes,” Mirestone continued. “I have, like you, heard of the hex of the white feather. I have traced it down to several families, but none could tell me anything about it that was factual. Half of the stupid fools made up stories as they went along--some concocting the biggest bunch of asinine tales that I’ve ever heard. But you, Peter, are a descendant of the Scheinbergers. I know for a fact that Otto Scheinberger practiced the white feather hex and passed the power on down to your father. From there it stopped. However, there must be some record of it in your family. You are in possession of the books of your grandfather, aren’t you?”
“I have several of his books. Some of them I have read.”
“Well,” Mirestone waited. “Did you come across anything about the hex?”
“Yes,” answered Peter. “I read about that which you mention.”
“Splendid, now we are getting somewhere. Can you find me the book that tells of it?”
Peter finished drinking his wine and setting the glass upon the table, he slowly rose and faced Mirestone with a look of superiority playing about his rustic features. “No, I am afraid not. You see, I have burned the book.”
Mirestone’s face went white. “You burned it?”
“Yes,” said Peter. “I don’t wish to have anything to do with such black magic. It is better burned.”
“But you must remember the hex. Although the book is destroyed you still have the information in your head, nein?”
“I could never forget it if I wanted to,” replied Peter reluctantly. “If I could burn my memory also it would be better.”
Mirestone went back to the fireplace and placed several chunks of wood on the blaze. A bright orange glow leaped out from the hearth and danced mockingly over his pallid brow, hiding his lank jowls in the shadows cast by the cheekbones. Like some grim spectre he rose up, towering above the little Dutchman. Peter had only to look into his eyes to see the imperative request that lingered behind the hollowed sockets.
Throughout the remainder of the night Peter, almost in spite of himself, wracked his brain to bring back to mind everything that was mentioned in the book about the hex of the white feather. The idea was clear enough, but the minute details, the infinite possibilities for mistake, and the exacting specifications concerning the experiment were blurred in his memory. He knew that with time he could bring back everything that he had read, but it would take deep concentration and, perhaps, many days of trial and error to determine the right path that they must follow in order to have success.
Mirestone, realizing that any distraction would break Peter’s train of thought, sat quietly in the corner finishing off the Dutchman’s supply of wine. He watched Peter closely through his slitted eyes, and it seemed that his compelling stare was the only force that could drive the frightened Peter on. Every so often Peter would glance up and see Mirestone leaning back in the corner half concealed by the deep shadows--only his partially opened eyes could be seen flickering in the fiery glow of the hearth. Then he would cover his face with his large, knotted hands, work the twisted fingers through his hair, and try to bring back to mind the evil recipe.
The glow from the fireplace gradually died down to make room for the streams of morning dawn. Peter blinked sleepily and got up to stretch a bit. Outside the dull morning light worked its way over Peter’s farm--clouds of mist still poured up from the gorge, circling the bridge and creeping up the bank across the fields. Peter unlatched the heavy oaken door and went outside to the outbuildings.
Meanwhile, Mirestone had started a fire in the stove and was placing slabs of bacon in the pan. “Nothing like a good old-fashioned peasant’s breakfast,” he laughed as Peter came in the door several minutes later. “So, you brought a goat, heh?” he noticed. “Are you figuring on starting in soon?”
Peter set a small kid on the floor and watched it scamper about the room, looking for an exit. “Yes, we might as well. I don’t like this business at all. I wish to get it over with as soon as possible, and----” Peter eyed Mirestone squarely. “I expect to be paid well for my trouble.” He was trying to make himself believe that that was his only reason for complying with Mirestone’s demands. Actually he was not so sure...
As the heat of the noon day sun blasted down on their backs, Mirestone watched Peter pass a feather, freshly plucked from a white Leghorn, under the nose of the bleating kid. Mirestone listened carefully to what Peter was telling him. The breath of the victim had to be spread over the feather before anything further could be done.
“Tie him,” commanded Peter. Mirestone held the goat by the scruff of his neck and fastened a halter about him. The other end was secured to a stake allowing the kid to run about in a circle of ten feet or so in diameter.
“We will leave him for awhile,” said Peter as he walked back to the kitchen.
Mirestone followed in the Dutchman’s footsteps, and when they were inside, he listened intently as Peter recited a monosyllabic chant over the feather. “The chant is easy enough to learn,” Peter assured him. “You will master it quickly.”
“I understand so far,” Mirestone said.
“Then that is all,” Peter finished, “except that you can hang the feather up and watch it grow red.”
“Yes,” Peter explained, “That is the only way you can tell if the hex has worked.”
Peter went to a chest at the foot of his bed and drew out a small box of sewing utensils. He broke off a piece of black thread and replaced the box in the chest. “Now I’ll show you what I mean,” Peter spoke wearily as he tied the feather with the thread and suspended it from one of the rafters in the room. “Just sit and watch.”
It was not many minutes before a light red tint crept up the feather’s quill, spreading slowly outwards towards the fringed edges. Deeper and deeper grew the intensity of the color until it reached a pure blood red.
“Hurry outside,” cried Peter. “You can see the goat in its last seconds of life.”
Mirestone hurried after the Dutchman. Jerking at the halter the goat bleated in agony, prancing up and down frantically. Its eyes grew horribly bloodshot and finally closed. With a feeble, choking sigh, the animal dropped over on its side, its legs still twitching spasmodically. Mirestone bent over the hairy form and examined the head, now wet with perspiration.
“Nothing can be done for the beast?”
“No.” Peter looked on with a touch of pity in his eyes, “Nothing can be done once the feather has turned red.”
As if the death of the kid was their cue, masses of thick thunderheads turned over with a deep rumbling thunder. The sky became crystal clear, and a greenish glow could be seen working its way across the horizon. The sky darkened as the glistening thunderheads now taking on an ominous coloring warned the farmers of the impending storm.
It was later that evening. Rain drummed against the slate roof of Peter’s house and reverberated through the rooms to where Mirestone and the Dutchman sat by the fire in silence. Mirestone broke the still atmosphere by putting forth a question that Peter somehow knew would be coming sooner or later.
“I wonder how the hex would react on a human being?”
Peter hoped to end the topic by answering him quickly and not beating around the bush trying to evade the question. “It would kill him eventually. Maybe not so quick as the goat, but it would kill him.”
“What do you mean not as quickly as the goat--do you think it would take more time on a human?”
“Perhaps. I have heard of cases in which the hex, once it was started, dragged on for many days.”
“I see.” Mirestone sat back again thinking to himself.
Peter didn’t like this. He wanted to get rid of Mirestone. “Well, you have your information. I showed you how the hex works. So, why not pay me and leave?”