Who doesn’t love a good story? Maybe a poem so full of excellent words you can actually see the image? And these stories and poems transcend time. Add to that the untimely and tragic death of the author, and one can’t help but wonder what other fantastic tales he might have told.
January 19th will mark another year of the mysterious visitor to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. The “Poe Toaster” never fails to make an appearance, and although there have been claims that his or her identity has been revealed, no one can say for sure. I, for one, hope it never is. It is fitting that something unknown and just a bit creepy continues to surround Poe even these many years since his death.
I would like to share with you a Poe story. This story would never have been written if it weren’t for the wonderful writer’s group I’m privileged to be part of, Humble Fiction Café. It came about from a group exercise we started to help spark our creativity. A brief explanation is in order.
Each of us wrote a letter. Then we exchanged these letters with other members of the group and the idea was to write a story based on the contents of the letter you received. But, there was a great twist! We received our letters anonymously. This was so we wouldn’t try to write our story hoping to please the letter’s author. I came by my letter in a very unusual way.
At a meeting on a cold and rainy January night in 2008, someone arrived carrying a parcel. Inside was a small box with a domed lid and an interesting latch. This person announced that because timing was of the utmost importance, this letter needed to be delivered immediately. We had a drawing to see who would receive the box and my number was chosen.
I could hardly wait to get my prize home and see what I had. Inside, along with the letter, I found a brandy snifter, a bottle of Hennessey Brandy and three red roses. Yes, real brandy and real roses. Before I finished reading the letter, I knew I had a challenge in front of me to write a story worthy of it.
Over the next several weeks, I researched my subject and thought about how best to approach the story. No doubt, the letter’s author was anxious to see where their idea would take me. At last, I finished my tale and posted my efforts for all to read. Then, and only then, did the letter’s writer reveal himself.
Gary Denton has been an inspiration to me several times, both with this letter and some of his other writings. He also has a real talent for composing music. Music is probably my best muse for writing and I’ve written one story based on one of his songs. There’s another in my head right now, just waiting to be written.
So here is the letter Gary wrote followed by my response to it. I think you will see that we both paid our tribute to Edgar Allan Poe.
January 13, 2008
“Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?”
It is with deep regret that I pass the torch to you. My regret is not in your abilities, mind you, but mine. In my failing health I can no longer execute the requirements of my office and I suppose my prior appointment may be looked upon as a failing of faculties. That is not the case. However, I am afraid that it has fallen to you, my dearest, and you must now bear the cloak, the shroud, and the mystery of our annual vigil
On the evening of January 18th, you will find in the receiving room of Westminster Hall, a long parcel addressed to “John Allan’s Ward.” In it you will find the silver-tipped cane and the cloak that I have kept hidden for nearly sixty years. Please be discrete. I am sure many who would oppose us will be looking for a sign on the eve of the vigil. Be quick in your procurement, and do not open the parcel until you are closed up, in your own house, and far from prying ears and eyes.
I have not revealed this to you previously, but I must now say that I regret the appointment of your brother John. It was to be a grand appointment, and a tradition of passing from father to son, but, alas, his actions have brought disgrace to our order, and his feelings for the French and his distaste for our Ravens, (wrongly predicted I might add) did not produce the effect he intended. Our office is not one for propaganda, or a bully pulpit. We are only here to advance the traditions, and to continue the vigil until the tomb is opened and the secret revealed.
Also, as is tradition, a part of the secret must be revealed to you. I held the largest portion for John, but as I have said, he squandered it in a sad attempt at cryptology, that, although simple, was not understood. That is now for him to reveal to another generation, but I feel you may already know the origin of the clothes that were on our founder’s back on the night of October 3rd. So I must now tell you a tale of lesser scrutiny by our opponents, but of significantly more importance than the identity of “Mr. Reynolds.”
The certificate of death is not “purloined”, but is hidden well in plain sight, as you might understand. It was not stolen to keep the evidence of his death a secret, but it did reveal the necessary information that would lead our modern technologist to understand his suicide. I fear I have actually revealed two secrets to you in this pronouncement, but coming to you so late in the process, I feel it is warranted.
Be careful as you approach the burial grounds and the grave. The morning of January Nineteenth is frequently unfriendly to us, and the possibility that you might loose your footing being so cloaked, would bring further shame upon us.
Execute your office well! The cognac is to be of your choosing, (Hennessy was a favorite of mine) but the three roses must be of the long stem variety and no color other than red is acceptable.
Be patient. Do not rush. Deliver the toast in a sincere manor, and leave whatever gifts you wish. The bottle must be left, and if you are kind, it should be slightly more than half full.
My deepest regards to you, dearest son, and may the truth come before you pass the torch.
AND THE FEVER CALLED LIVING
IS CONQUERED AT LAST
January 25, 2008
By now you know my first obligation to the task was accomplished without mishap, and surely you have been wondering about my silence since then.
It is not that I am ungrateful for the honor or that I want to be somehow above it all. I have, quite frankly, been overwhelmed by something I thought best to conceal from you until I was sure of what I had.
I know you were watching last week with the other onlookers and reporters as I paid my first tribute to Poe. I was so nervous, shaking both from that condition and the cold, and utterly certain I would trip and fall or make some other idiot mistake. I was comforted by the fact that concealed in the group of witnesses, you would prevent them from advancing on me if need be.
Upon bending to lay the roses and the cognac, I made a strange discovery. At the base of the stone, hidden nearly from view, I found a brandy snifter. Inside it were the petals of red roses, three I assumed, and beneath it, a leather-bound book. A small card lay atop the rose petals. Written in a feminine hand were the words, “For Mr. Poe.”
I managed to leave my items, as require, and secret the new ones in the folds of my cape before making my exit. I was in such a rush to get these things inside and study them in the light. Once safely locked behind closed doors, I noticed there was a lipstick stain on the rim of the glass, and mixed with the aroma of the rose petals, the faint lingering of cognac.
It appeared someone had played a joke on me and the Society in general, but upon opening the book, I made another discovery. Inside, written in the same hand writing, I found a note.
“Tonight, I pay my last respects to ‘Our Mr. Poe’. This book as been kept in my family for over one hundred years. It is a true account. I give it now to you. Do with it what you will.”
Father, I’m still not sure of its authenticity. I have studied it for days. It appears to be old, the handwriting and ink appear to be real, not a printed reproduction of any kind. I’m at a loss. Nevertheless, here it is. You be the judge. If this is a true and accurate account, then you must decide what you will do with it. No doubt it will cause much controversy.
October 7, 1899
I’m an old woman now, and it may be true that I have forgotten the number of my street address when I was 24, or the name of my favorite cat who visited the garden there, but I have not forgotten one detail of the events which occurred over four day’s time in October of 1849.
My granddaughter is desperate for me to set my memories on paper, lest they be lost, and so I do it now, more to please her than to dredge them up for myself. One consolation is that in this exercise, perhaps I shall rid myself of nightmares once and for all. And so, on the 50th anniversary of our Mr. Poe’s untimely death, I tell you now the events I was eyewitness to.
The hour was late and I was turning my thoughts toward a light meal and a long sleep when there arrived at the hospital front door, two men who appeared to be quite agitated and in a hurry. Between them, they bore another fellow who, at first glance, seemed to be quite drunk. He was unable to support himself and had it not been for his two friends, would have been lying on the front steps. They urged him forward, calling him by name. “Eddy,” one of them said. “Tell me what has happened to you!” But, the drunken fellow could make no response except to peer about as if in a state of confusion. An orderly was summoned to take “Eddy” away, and I was dispatched to attend to the patient. I knew then it would be some time before I would have my supper and find my bed.
As I was helping by gathering the fellow’s coat, hat and walking stick, I overheard his companions discussing the matter of payment for his treatment. “We’d best just leave him here for now. The hospital will tend to him, and they are far better able to absorb the cost than I am at the moment,” one of the gentlemen said. The other only laughed, and as I was following the orderly away, they made their escape. I never saw either of these two gentlemen again, but I am satisfied they both knew full well who they had left in my care: The poet, Edgar Allan Poe.
A man, or a woman for that matter, has a certain look about them when under the influence of alcohol, and being a nurse, it has been my duty to care for a great many poor souls who have been brought through the doors. I was an expert in that look. I had never met the man before, but was a great admirer of his work, and so took that opportunity to study him closely. Mr. Poe was most definitely not intoxicated.
His eyes had a vacant look to them, but there was great pain there was well. One side of his face drooped ever so slightly, and he seemed to be greatly confused about his situation. He did not, or could not speak, could barely walk, and, in fact, had to practically be carried away. Why his two gentlemen friends did not help him has remained a mystery to me to this very day.
It was decided that he belonged in the indigent ward amongst the other drunkards, and so was taken there, and there I followed bringing his coat, hat and walking stick. I remember being struck at the time by the appalling condition of his clothing.
Once taken to the indigent ward, Mr. Poe’s realization of his situation became clear on his face. He became agitated, and would have been combative had he not been in such pain. I could see the confusion and fear on his brow at being in a strange place and being unable to communicate properly. Dr. Moran was summoned, but declined to come to the ward, only sending word that Mr. Poe was to be kept there until morning, and no visitors were to be allowed.
I took charge of his clothing, such as it was, folding it neatly and storing it away along with his cane in the small bedside table. Then, he was made as comfortable as possible, and before I retired for the evening, I noted that he had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion.
Upon reporting to my appointed duty the next morning, I found Mr. Poe much improved, but not recovered by any means. He appeared more bright eyed and in less pain, although the features on half his face still seemed to be distorted. He spoke slowly, as if pondering every word before letting it escape his lips.
He inquired about his whereabouts and whether or not he had had visitors. And, as is usual with patients, he asked when he might leave. My response to him was the usual as well. “When the doctor says you may leave, I’ll be the first to let you know.” This satisfied him for a while.
We had some conversation, he and I; although I am not completely convinced his mind was present for all of it. Some of it, I am quite sure he was fully aware of, but as the day progressed, so did whatever his affliction was. And I was surprised and saddened to discover that along with the physical pain he was suffering, he had an emotional pain as well.
“Has anyone called for me?” he questioned. If he asked once, he asked many times through out the day if anyone had troubled to call about him, if anyone had come for him, if anyone was willing to take him home. He haltingly spoke of needing to contact his family, of his mother-in-law waiting to hear from him and of a fiancé. I was struck at the vulnerability of such a talented man. He was pitifully small and sad, but even so, he was a gentleman. He asked my name.
“By what name shall I call you?” he wanted to know and so I told him. He made no reply, and I wasn’t certain he would remember or that he had even heard me, for he spent most of that day in and out of pain.
At times he would complain to me that he had a tremendous headache. “Please,” he said. His hand, more like a claw, gripped my arm with astounding strength. “Please, close the shutters. The light hurts my eyes so much!” At other times, he lay back on the pillow with his eyes closed, and I could see he was struggling to endure the pain by breathing slowly, willing it to pass.
“My family…” he pleaded. “Has anyone come to get me?”
My heart was breaking for him and so I made attempts to cheer him up. Smiling, I tried to make light of the situation. “Mr. Poe, I’m sure someone has come to collect you, but you’re not well enough to leave. In a day or two, you will be drinking a toast at Gunner’s Hall as if none of this had happened. Be patient and let me take care of you.”
“That is so kind of you,” he said, “but it is temperance for me. Drink the toast if you please, but drink to your own good health and long life.”
As the day progressed, I began to wonder about his family as well, and so at a rate moment when he was pain free enough to be asleep, I decided I should find Dr. Moran. I found the doctor near the hospital front door talking with a gentleman. Their tone was just on the side of stern with each other.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Moran was telling the other man. “Mr. Poe cannot receive visitors today. He is much too excitable. We’ve put him in a private room, and I will see you are summoned the moment he is well enough to leave. In the meantime, let me attend to him.”
Attend to him, indeed! Dr. Moran had not seen Mr. Poe all day, and furthermore, Mr. Poe was not in a private room, but still in the indigent ward. Why the doctor would lie about these facts puzzled me, but the answer was soon evident. The good doctor quickly turned, left the gentleman standing just inside the front doors, and proceeded to walk away with a group of people, all the while animatedly describing his dealing with the famous patient. I was embarrassed by this behavior to say the least. The gentleman Dr. Moran so rudely rejected was a cousin of Mr. Poe’s, Neilson Poe. He introduced himself to me, and inquired as to Edgar’s condition. It was not my place to contradict the doctor and so I made no attempt to do so. All I could do was answer this Mr. Poe’s questions about how his cousin had come to be in such a state, who had brought him there, and the like. Unfortunately, I knew very little and could not offer much help.
At length, Mr. Neilson Poe asked me a very strange question. “What has become of the money my cousin was carrying?” I was taken aback and very nervous about it as well. There had been no money at all in the coat or pants pockets. I had made note of that as I folded them. I informed this Mr. Poe of that, all the while sure I may be blamed for theft. He didn’t seem interested in accusing me, but demanded to see his cousin’s clothing. I fetched it right away, and was confronted by another strange reaction.
“These are not Eddy’s clothes!” he told me. “I have never seen this suit or hat before. And these shoes! Look at their condition. Eddy would never wear these.”
I assured him these were indeed the clothes his cousin had arrived in. He poked and prodded about inside the lining of the coat and of course, found no money. He even rejected the walking stick, claiming he had never seen it either and saying Eddy was too gentle of a man to possess a cane containing a sword. He took the bundle of clothing and the cane and stormed out the front door. Once on the sidewalk, he heaved the lot into the gutter, vowing to come back and get to the heart of the mystery. Before he could return, Edgar Allan Poe was dead.
Pain and suffering seem to multiply in the dark and it was no exception for our Mr. Poe. I had hoped he was beginning a recovery of sorts as evidenced by our conversations during the day, but the pain that gripped him came full force during the night.
I retired to my room sometime after midnight, only intending to sleep for a short while and then return to his beside, but I found I could not sleep. The calamity that echoed through the hall penetrated my bedroom door and pulled me awake. I entered the ward with his screams already in my ears. I had thought perhaps he hadn’t heard my name, or would not remember it. I was wrong.
Throughout the last hours of his life, he called out to me often, though not in despair, as you might imagine. He seemed to be more a man in want of assurance that the rational world might still exist and perhaps he might find a handhold on it again. But he could not.
I strongly believe those characters and circumstances he created still dwelt in his mind. Even though those thoughts flowed from his brain through the pen and onto the page, a remnant of each still remained to torment him until death and likely beyond.
At last he was restrained like Fortunato as his own mind built a brick wall between itself and the outside world. And how must I have looked? Like the raven, peering at him through the chinks in that wall with beady, black eyes and so little understanding, helpless and small as his brain devoured his soul.
At length, he stopped his screams, but death was still hours away. The pain never left him, evident by the glazing of his eyes that would darken and grow dim, then cruelly, return lit in his pale face. At the end, he was no longer able to move his face or hands at all and so, in the early morning hours of October 7th, 1849, our Mr. Poe took his last breath and was released from life. I was with him when he died.
The next day was cold and somber, as if the world knew we had lost one of our best. I thought then and still do, that it was so odd. For some reason, there was a delayed reaction and surely by evening all the city would have heard of his death, but not so.
The funeral was attended by only five people. I made the sixth, though I secreted myself at a distance, choosing to wrap in my dark cape both against the cold and recognition.
As his coffin was borne to the grave, an icy chill went through me remembering how they had simply laid his body inside. No lining, no pillow; just the tight confines of the box for all eternity. And I dreaded, but also wanted so badly for him to rise up and punish those who had exploited him in his final days.
Once the box was lowered, the ceremony finished, I thought at last he would be at peace. But his torment was only beginning, and it continues to this day. I have tried to pay tribute to him in my own way, but it has been as pitiful and small as he was in his last day.
The evening of October 9th fell, and I found myself so restless, so agitated. The hospital, the city; in fact, the entire world had seemingly returned to normal and only barely stopped to acknowledge his existence and death.
I was so angry and thought to somehow make it right. The conversation we had had kept returning to me, and I was struck once again by his insecurity and fragile nature. To think that such a talented and articulate poet should be lonely and unsure of himself broke my heart. I resolved then to make good on my promise of the toast, and set about quickly to accomplish that.
I suppose I should be ashamed to admit it, but I became a thief that night. The cognac I purchased with the thought in mind to drink my toast and keep the rest against the chill winter night to come, but the roses – the roses were stolen.
Roses in October were rare, forced blooms from some indoor garden tended for the sole purpose of furnishing flowers for the wealthy. They arrived that morning as part of a beautiful bouquet for a patient in the private sector of the hospital. Their bright red stood out against the cold, grey day and my blacker mood. I saw them and realized that our Mr. Poe had had no flowers of any kind laid on his grave. The injustice of it all prompted me to pull three of the smaller buds from the arrangement. Those three would not be missed; any more and I risked destroying the symmetry of the bouquet.
Once it was dark, I wrapped myself in my cape, and taking the walking stick I had retrieved from the gutter, I set about to visit his grave. There was a slight breeze making the evening air chill and damp. The freshly turned dirt was soft under my feet, making my footing unsure. At one point I stumbled and the tip of the cane sank deep into the earth, but I resolved to drink the toast as I had promised. I was grateful for the silence because I had wanted silence from Edgar in those last desperate, pain-filled hours before his death. His screams and anguished cries still echoed in my ears. But it was his loneliness that cut deep into my heart. I drank the cognac, feeling its warmth travel the length of my throat and wishing Edgar had felt some warmth in his life. I laid the three stolen blooms atop the grave and said a silent prayer for his soul. Then I resolved to be the one that would honor him yearly, even if no one else would.
I was young then, and idealistic I suppose. I admit I was enamored with the melancholy of his writings, and at first the tribute seemed fitting on the day of his death. But as time went forward and I became more mature, I realized that the honor should go to the day of his birth instead. I have visited his grave on January 19th for many years.
In the days and yes, years that have followed, people still want to ride the coattails of his celebrity, but all elevate themselves by bringing Mr. Poe down to their level and below. They have made him a drunk, an addict, a madman, and it is all true. He was each of these in turn in his lifetime, but they want to judge a brief life compared to a long one. A life cut short has many faults crammed into a small time upon Earth. A long life has room for those mistakes with enough space in between for forgetfulness and forgiveness.
From the other end of my life, in my old age, I can see the personality of some of his detractors. Dr. Moran slipped so easily into the glow of Mr. Poe’s celebrity, stealing as much as he could for himself and trying desperately to hold onto it over time. He has become a buffoon with his twisting and turning of the events, most of which he knew nothing about. And Griswold, who used the alias “Ludwig” to defame Mr. Poe before he was even cold in death! Both shameful, pitiful men and part of the reason I have kept quiet about my own involvement for these past fifty years. There are enough people still using Edgar that I would not want the world thinking I am one more.
What happened to Edgar Allan Poe I cannot say. I only know he died a horrible death while in my care and I was helpless to prevent it.
“There are some secrets that do not permit themselves to be revealed.” E. A. Poe.
I hope you enjoyed my story and my taking liberties with the facts, such as they are, that suround Poe's death. No one has been able to determine who the "Reynolds" might have been that Poe called out to before he died. I like to imagine that maybe there was someone there with him when he died.
Until next time.