Don Whitman’s Masterpiece

It was Danvers who finally pushed him in. We’d been feeding the fire with hardwood since the afternoon and it had gotten big as the wind picked up by nightfall, flickering cross our faces and warming our cheeks better than a gas heater. He didn’t even scream when he fell. The flames just swallowed him up—sparks shooting out like hot vomit. He knew what he’d done. He knew it was wrong. When he lifted himself up and came out of the fire he stood dead still, staring at us, smiling like we’d done him a favour. Maybe he thought he deserved to turn into ash. Maybe he did deserve it. I know I kept my fingers tight round the handle of the axe just the same till he keeled over and Cauley had touched the corpse with his foot and we knew he was dead. The three of us, we kept silent for a long while after that. There was just the sound of wood burning and it was better that way. None of us touched the body but none of us looked away, either: you could still make out his face, unmistakable, when the rest of him was dark and formless. He was a face on a pile. Then the wind started taking bits and pieces and carrying them away. Like I told the police, he didn’t touch me, but I knew some of the kids he’d done it to. He’d done it to Danvers. I remember once when all the other kids were gone, I’d stayed after class, Mr Gregor bent himself close to my ear and told me the real story. “You’re a wicked one,” he said when he was done, “just like Don Whitman.”

They used to scare us with Don Whitman, the adults: the other teachers, our parents, the priest. But no one ever explained it. They’d just say, “You better do what we want or else Don Whitman will come back and get you.” Mr Gregor was the only one ever to tell it to me with details. He told it different, too. He said he remembered because he was the same age as Don Whitman and they went to the same school. He said that what the others say they remember is like Cain and Abel or Little Red Riding Hood. Even the landscape tells the fairy tale. After it happened, Don Whitman’s school got torn down, then his house. And the bells in the Church got changed: the ones they rang after Elizabeth Cartwell had come back hysterical with the news.

You can’t tear down or change a man’s memory, Mr Gregor told me.

Once you see, it’s forever.

Elizabeth Cartwell’s parents moved away as soon as the police investigation finished. A lot of people moved away. But Mr Gregor showed me a newspaper from Hill City, North Dakota from some years later. The paper was yellow but you could read the black print fine. The story was about a girl who’d killed herself. The photo was of Elizabeth Cartwell. As he held it out for me to see, his hand shook and I felt his breath grow warmer against the skin around my neck. Nothing made him shake as much as what happened to Elizabeth Cartwell, not even the details.

Don Whitman was seventeen when he did it. He was handsome, with wide shoulders and played football. All the girls liked him. He was going to go to college. Maybe that’s why they thought he was ready: they thought he was a man. They thought he’d be with them. It was a school night when they woke him and drove out to the old pumping station, so that he could see everything for himself. They wanted to make him a part of it just like they were. If he saw, he would want it just like they did. I was always told that he drove out there by himself, but Mr Gregor told me that’s part of the lie. He said Don Whitman’s father was in the car with the mayor and the chief of police. He said, “How would he have found the place by himself—why would he have gone looking?”

The place is in a wood not far from the border. Of course, the whole underground is filled with cement now, but you can still see where the opening used to be: a fat tube sticking out of the ground, just big enough for a man to crawl down into. There was a hatch on it then, and thick locks. The hatch was sound-proof. If you stood right beside it, you couldn’t hear a thing, but as soon as you opened the hatch you could smell the insides and hear the moans start to drift upwards into the world. A steel ladder led down. Mr Gregor says they all knew about it, everyone: all the adults. They’d all been down that ladder. All of them had seen it.

Don Whitman went down the ladder, too. He must have smelled the insides grow stronger and heard the moaning echo louder with every rung but he kept going. On the ground above, his father spoke to the mayor and they both felt proud. Don Whitman must have been more scared of coming up and disappointing them than of not going down to the limit. But when he reached the bottom, the very bottom, and put his feet to the hard concrete and saw it before his own eyes, something inside of him must have broken—

“They sugarcoat it and they make a child’s game of it because they’re too scared to remember the truth,” Mr Gregor told me. “They can’t forget it, but it’s a stain to them, so they cover it up and pretend that everything’s clean.”

Don Whitman saw the vastness of the interlocking chambers and, within them, the writhing, ecstatic, swollen no-people of the underground, human-like but non-human, cross-bred mammals draped in plaster-white skin pinned to numb faces, men, women and children, male and female, naked, scared, dirty, with humans—humans Don Whitman knew and recognized—among them, on them and under them, hitting them, squeezing them, making them hurt, making monstrous sounds with them, all under slowly rotating heat lamps, all open and together, one before another, and then someone, someone Don Whitman knew, must have put a hand on Don Whitman’s shoulder and Don Whitman would have asked, “But what now, what am I supposed to do?” and then, from somewhere deep within the chambers, from a place not even Don Whitman would ever see, a voice answered:


Mr Gregor pulled away from me and I felt my body turn cold. Icy sweat crawled under my collar and below my thighs.

I’d been told Don Whitman had found the old pumping station and lured the police to it, that they’d called others—including Don Whitman’s father—to talk him out of any violence, but that he’d snapped and murdered them all without firing a single shot, with his bare hands, and dumped the bodies into the metal pipe sticking out of the ground, the one just wide enough for a man to fit through. Then he’d disappeared. It wasn’t until days later that Elizabeth Cartwell found the bodies and there was never any sign of Don Whitman after that. The manhunt failed. So the church bells rang, the school was torn down, the pipe was filled in and, ever since, the adults scare their children with the story of the high school boy who’d done a terrible, sinful thing and vanished into thin air.

“And why would she decide to go out there?” Mr Gregor asked—meaning Elizabeth Cartwell—his eyes dead-set through a window at the raining world outside. “It’s as transparent as a sheet of the Bible, every word of it. They all pretend to believe because they’ve all made it up together. But the police reports, the testimony, the news stories, the court records, the verdict: a sham, a falsification made truth because a thousand people and a judge repeat it, word-for-word, every night before bed.”

I tried to stand but couldn’t. My heart was pounding me back into the chair. I was thinking about my mother and father. I had only enough courage for one question, so I asked, “What happened to the no-people?”

Mr Gregor turned suddenly and laughed so fierce the rain lashed the windows even harder. He came toward me. He put a delicate hand on each of my shoulders. He bent forward until his lips were almost touching mine and, his eyes staring at me like one stares at the Devil, said:

“Buried in the concrete. Buried alive, buried dead—”

I pushed him away.

He stumbled backward without losing his balance.

I forced myself off the chair, praying that my legs would keep. My knees shook but held. In front of me, Mr Gregor rasped for air. A few long strands of his thin hair had fallen across his forehead. He was sweating.

“He was a coward, that little boy, Don Whitman. Without him, we wouldn’t need to live under the whip of elaborate lies designed by weaker people turned away and shamed by the power of the natural order of things. They trusted him, and he betrayed us all. The fools! The weakling! Imagine,” Mr Gregor hissed, “just imagine what we could have had, what we could have experienced down there, at the very bottom, in the chambers…”

His eyes spun and his chest heaved as he grew excited, but soon he lost his venom and his voice returned to normal.

Finally, he said without any nastiness, “You’re a wicked one, just like Don Whitman.”

And I ran out.

Danvers prodded me awake. I must have fallen asleep during the night because when I opened my eyes it was morning already. The sun was up and the flames gone, but the fire was still warm. Mr Gregor’s dead face still rested atop a pile of ashes. Cauley was asleep on the dirt across from us. I could tell Danvers hadn’t slept at all. He said he’d been to a farmhouse and called the police. We woke up Cauley and talked over what we’d say when they got here. We decided on something close to the truth: Mr Gregor had taken the three of us camping and, when he tried to do a bad thing, we put up a fight and knocked him into the flames. Cauley said it might be suspicious because of how easily Mr Gregor had burned, but Danvers said that some people were like that—they burned quick and whole—so we needn’t say a word about the gasoline. When the police came, they were professional and treated us fair, but when they took me aside to talk to me about the accident, every time I tried to tell them about the bad things Mr Gregor had done, they wouldn’t hear it, they just said it was a shame there’d been an accident and someone had died.

At home, I asked my parents whether Mr Gregor was a bad person for what he’d done to Danvers and others. My mother didn’t say anything. My father looked at me like he was looking at the Devil himself and said morality was not so simple and that people had differing points of view and that, in the end, much depended not on what you did, but who you did it to—like during the war, for example. There were some who deserved to be done-to and others whose privilege it was to do. Then he picked up his magazine and told me it was best not to think about such things at all.

I did keep thinking about them, and about Don Whitman, too. When I got to high school, I was too old to scare with monsters, but once in a while I’d hear one of the adults tell a kid he better do as he’d been told or Don Whitman would come back and get him. I wondered if maybe people scare others with monsters they’re most scared of themselves. I even thought about investigating: taking a pick-axe to the pumping station and cracking through concrete or investigating records of how much of it had been poured in there. But I figured the records could have been fixed and one person with a pick-axe wouldn’t get far before the police came and I didn’t trust them anymore. I also had homework to worry about and I started seeing a girl.

I’d almost forgotten about Don Whitman by the time my mother sent me out one evening with my dad’s rifle to hunt down a coyote she said had been attacking her hens. I took a bike, because it was quiet, and was roaming just beyond town when I saw something kick up dust in a field. I shot at it, missed and it scurried off. I pedaled after it until it seemingly disappeared into nowhere. I kept my eye firm on the spot I saw it last and when I got close enough, I saw there was a small hole in the ground there. I stuck the rifle in and the hole felt bigger on the inside, so I stomped all around till the hole caved and where there’d been a mouse-sized hole now there was an opening a grown man could fit through. It seemed deep, which made me curious, because there aren’t many caves around here, so I stuck my feet in but still couldn’t feel the bottom. I slid in a little further, and further still, and soon the opening was above my head and I was inside with my whole body.

It was dark but I could feel the ground sloping. When my eyes accustomed to the gloom, I saw enough to tell there was a tunnel leading into the depths and that it was big enough for me to crawl through. I didn’t have a light but I knew it was important to try the hole. Maybe there were no-people at the bottom. Mostly, though, I didn’t think—I expected: that every time I poked ahead with the rifle, I’d hit earth and the tunnel would be done.

That never happened. I descended for hours. The tunnel grew narrower and the slope sharpened. Fear tightened around my chest. I lost track of time. There wasn’t enough space to turn my body around and I’d been descending for so long it was foolish to backtrack. Surely, the tunnel led somewhere. It was not a natural tunnel, I told myself, it must lead somewhere. I should continue until I reached the end, turn around and return to the surface. The trick was to keep calm and keep moving forward.

And I was right. Several hours later the tunnel ended and I crawled out through a hollow in the wall of a huge grotto.

I stood, stretched my limbs and squinted through the dimness. I couldn’t see the other end of the grotto but the wall curved so I thought that maybe if I went along I might get to the other end. My plan of an immediate return to the surface was on hold. I had to see what lived here. Images of no-people raced through my head. I readied my rifle and proceeded, slowly at first. Where the tunnel had been packed dirt and clay, the walls and floor of the grotto were solid rock. There was moisture, too. It flowed down the walls and gathered in depressions on the floor.

Although at first the wall felt smooth, soon I began to feel a texture to it—like a washboard. The ceiling faded into view. The grotto was getting smaller. And the texture was becoming rougher, more violent. I was thinking about the texture and Mr Gregor’s burnt body when a sound sent me sprawling. My elbow banged against the rock and I nearly cried out. My heart was beating like it had beaten me into my chair in the classroom. The sound was real: faint but clear and echoing. It was the sound of continuous and rhythmic scratching.

I crawled forward, holding the rifle in front. The scratching grew louder. I thought about calling out, but suddenly felt foolish to believe in no-people or anything of that kind. It seemed more sensible to believe in large rodents or coyotes with sharp teeth. I could have turned back, but the only thing more frightening than a monster in front is a monster behind, so I pulled myself on.

In fact, I was crawling up a small hill and, when I had reached the top, I looked down and there it was:

His was a human body. Though hunched, he stood on human legs and scratched with human hands. His movements were also clearly a man’s movements. There was nothing feminine about them. His half-translucent skin was grey, almost white, and taut; and if he had any hair, I didn’t see it. His naked body was completely smooth. I looked at him for a long time with dread and disgust. His arms didn’t stop moving. Whatever they were scratching, they kept scratching. Even when he turned and his head looked at me, even as I—stunned—frozen in terror, recoiled against the wall, still his arms kept moving and his hands clawing.

For a few seconds, I thought he’d seen me, that I was done for.

I gripped the rifle tight.

But as I focused on his face, I realized he hadn’t seen me at all. He couldn’t see me. His face, so much like a colourless swollen skull, was punctuated by two black and empty eye sockets.

He turned back to face the wall he was scratching. I turned my face, too. The texture on the wall was his. The deeper the grooves, the newer the work. I put down the rifle and put my hand on the wall, letting my fingers trace the contours of the texture. It wasn’t simple lines. The scratching wasn’t meaningless. These were two words repeated over and over, sometimes on top of each other, sometimes backwards, sometimes small, sometimes each letter as big as a person, and they were all around this vast underground lair, everywhere you looked—

Two words: Don Whitman.

He’d made this grotto. I felt feverish. The sheer greatness, the determination needed to scratch out such a place with one’s bare hands. Or perhaps the insanity—the punishment. If I hadn’t been sitting, a wave of empathy would have knocked me to the wet, rocky floor. I picked up the rifle. I could put Don Whitman out of his misery. I lifted the rifle and pointed it at the distant figure writing his name pointlessly into the wall. With one pull of the trigger, I could show him infinite mercy. I steadied myself. I said a prayer.

Don Whitman stopped scratching and wailed.

I bit down on my teeth.

I hadn’t fired yet.

He grabbed his head and fell to his knees. The high-pitched sound coming from his throat was unbearable. I felt like my mind was being ripped apart. I dropped the rifle and covered my ears. Again, Don Whitman turned. This time with his entire body. He crawled a few steps toward me—still wailing—before stopping and falling silent. He raised his head. Where before had been just eye sockets now there were eyes. White, with irises. Somehow, they’d grown.

He got to his feet and I was sure that he could see me now. He was staring at me. I called his name:

“Don Whitman!”

He didn’t react. Thoughts raced through my mind: what should I do once he comes toward me? Should I defend myself or should I embrace him?

But he didn’t step forward.

He took one step back and lifted his long fingers to his face. His nails, I now saw, were thick and curved as a bird’s talons. He moved them softly from his forehead, down his cheeks and up to his eyes, into which, without warning, he pressed them so painfully that I felt my own eyes burn. When he brought his fingers back out, in each hand he held a mashed and bleeding eyeball. These he put almost greedily into his mouth, one after the other, then chewed, and swallowed.

Having nourished his body, he returned to the wall and began scratching again.

As I watched the movements of his arms, able to follow the pattern of the letters they were carving, I no longer felt like killing him. If he wanted to die, he could die: he could forego water, he could refuse to eat. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to keep scratching his name into the walls of this grotto: Don Whitman, Don Whitman, Don Whitman…

I watched him for a long time before I realized that I would have to get to the surface soon. People would begin to worry. They might start looking for me. And as much as I needed to know the logic behind Don Whitman’s grotto, I also needed food. I couldn’t live down here. I couldn’t eat my own eyes and expect them to grow back. Eventually, I would either have to return to the world above or die.

I put my hand on the grotto wall and began to mentally retrace my steps. A return would not be difficult. All I would need to do was follow—

That’s when I knew.

The geography of it hit me.

The hole I’d entered was on the outskirts of town. The tunnel sloped toward the town. That meant this grotto was below the town. The town hall, the bank, the police station, the school—all of it was lying unknowingly on top of a giant expanding cavity. One day, this cavity would be too large, the town would be too heavy, and everything would collapse into a deep and permanent handmade abyss. Don Whitman would bury the town just as the town had buried the no-people. Everything would be destroyed. Everyone would die. That was Don Whitman’s genius. That was his life’s work.

I picked up the rifle and faced Don Whitman for the final time.

He must have known that I was there. He’d heard me and had probably seen me before he pulled out his eyes, yet he just continued to scratch. Faced with death, he kept working.

As I stood there, I had no doubt that, left in peace, Don Whitman would finish his project. His will was too powerful. The result would be catastrophic. It was under these assumptions that I made the most moral and important decision of my life:

I walked away.