Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Mauren Stead

Eli Mauren was a patient man. A war, 60 years of farming, and 17 grandchildren taught a person to be still. He waited outside milking barn in the late afternoon light leaning on his cane. He was staring at one of his favorite jersey heifers standing alone in a field. She was about 300 yards away on a gently sloping hillside. A brown figure surrounded by clean snow at the forest's edge. The heifer had not moved in the fifteen minutes he had locked eyes on her. She did not flick an ear, swish her long tail, or lift a hoof. For a healthy young milker to be standing so still was concerning him, but he did what he always did when an animal acted odd: observe. He remained still as a perched kestrel, watching without so much as a blink. Terrified that if he did he'd miss the movement that would wash him over with sweet relief. The heifer remained a statue in the snow. Something wasn't right at White Creek Farm.

He first noticed her away from the rest of the herd when chores started at dawn. He usually liked to have his morning work completed before Sun Up, but today had not allowed the habit. He had risen at the chimes of his brass alarm clock at 4:15, just as he had every morning since he took the farm over from his father after the war. He'd married his girl, had six children, and watched his family blossom here in the Battenkill Valley while he tended his beloved cows. The children were grown, and his dear wife had passed from the flu last winter when it spread through the county like wildfire. He truly believed it was the cows that saved him. That so many years outdoors among the rust, woods, blood, milk, and dung had build an immune system no sickness had touched since he laid in a hospital bed after the horrors of Cold Harbor, so many lifetimes ago...

He got dressed in a heavy wool Aran sweater, flecked with hay and ash, and his favorite fur-lined cap. Humming an old, familiar fiddle tune, he started the coffee while he fetched a lantern from the hook on the wall. He set the globe aside and looked around the room. The soft fire in the old fieldstone chimney was burning bright and cheery. His dinner of potato soap and bread was warming in a Dutch oven hanging by a chain over the coals. While lighting his favorite black table lamp in the kitchen he was thinking about how much he liked his oil light, how he hated the harsh gas lights of those new Colemans every other dairyman was raving about. Talking to himself as he shook out the match, he turned for his lantern when the world exploded before him.

He slammed to the ground from the force of air that pushed through the farmhouse door, cracked it in half and blew out all the glass panes. The rage came from nowhere and shook the entire home, knocking cans off the shelf and rattling the windows. The fire in the kitchen's hearth spat and howled as the howl caused such a strong draw it shot flames high and filled the room with orange light turning blue. Bits of sawdust and tinder lit all over the floor and walls, red and orange streams of burning coal moving in the cracks of the old wooden floor like blood poisoning in veins. Soon the room was nothing but fire and air. Mauren panicked, but remembered his wits and crawled on his belly towards the open door, praying he could make it before the heat took him. Outside a torrent of snow screamed across his valley farm. It had come as fast and hard as the wind that threw him down. He tried to go outside, to leave the burning house, but didn't make it five feet outside his door before he felt nearly lost in the white out. He fell to the snow and turned around towards the nearly diminished light of the house. What snowstorm could hide a house fire? It swallowed everything.

He crawled to the barn with all his strength, moving by instinct instead of sight. When he felt the old wood of the barn door he pulled the sliding door open just enough to crawl inside. He slid the door behind him and sat up, finally catching his breath in the safety of the windless, flameless barn. A dozen Jersey heifers lifted their head to regard him and then returned to eating. The cows had no concern for the intruder or the storm. He then tried to listen by pressing his ear to the door he’d just shut but he couldn't hear anything but cloven air and angry branches breaking from the force. He prayed that the herd was near the barn, taking shelter in the sturdy walls his great grandfather built when this country was new. He remained on the floor, and let himself rest his eyes while it blew and fussed behind the three inches of maple that made his barrier. Without meaning to, despite the urge to remain awake, he fell asleep.

When he awoke it was dawn and the farm seemed strangely unaffected. During morning chores he was calmed at the sight of his girls by the old red barn. They huddled near their feeders and water trough. He fed them fresh hay by the pitchfork, and noticed they all seemed more skittish than usual. Their eyes showing more of the white than he cared to see. As he pitched the hay his body could afford—slowly and with much strain—he raised his scratchy voice in a loud, "Home, Girls! Home!" hoping to round up all the stragglers near the tree line. He couldn’t blame the wanderers. A wise cow takes the closest cover, be it forest or barn. A few heifers probably took shelter in the woods. He waved and whooped and slowly brown faces emerged from the forest. His beautiful milkers, came down to the barn in their ambling, eager way. Nearly, all. The brown heifer he was watching when the storm struck him was still standing in the same place? And as he called, watched her, and went about she remained standing.

And so now it was an hour since he first saw the girl on the hill, and he stood near his barn afraid. His son, who lived on the opposite end of his property—a mile away near the main road into town—would not be here to start morning milking with his sons for another hour. Mauren decided to investigate. He could not wait through the suspense, and if something was wrong he would need to know so to properly convey it to his son. He fetched his shotgun, walking cane, and a few medical supplies into a shoulder satchel and slowly started up the pasture’s icy hillside.

Crows watched from high in the birch branches as Mauren slowly climbed the hill. He stopped twice, to look around as much as to catch his breath. Curiously there were no prints in the snow, no disruption at all on the entire hillside. Yet he could see the trails through the powder plainly on the other side of the barn where the cattle ate. He could follow them to places in the forest a half mile away, but not over here? This stretch of snow was virgin ground, save for the tracks he made behind him.

Now, just fifty feet away from the heifer he could see she was dead. Dead and frozen where she stood. He had heard stories of this happening, but never saw such a thing in his own life, nor knew anyone who had. As he gained on her his curiosity grew. She was, without a doubt, dead as a hammer but she had actually died mid-stride. Two hooves were off the ground reaching forward, and her face placid as a calf's. But something was odd about her front left foot. It was black. It seemed skinnier too? He stopped walking, not ten feet from the animal, and looked harder. It was bone. The front hoof was nothing but black bone reaching out trying to step. It was clean as glass. No sign of blood, sinew, or skin? Then he noticed the same from the back left leg, planted firmly into 5 inches of snow but also nothing but black clean bones. As he stepped closer, he unintentionally held his breath. His heart was pounding in his temples, his eyes wide and mouth agape.

As he turned the corner on the giant animal he clasped his hand into a fist and shoved it into his mouth to bite into it. An involuntary reaction he hadn't succumbed to since his the War. The drastic lurch made him drop his shotgun and even then he flinch when the buckshot exploded into the dead cow in front of him. Half of the beast was gone. The half facing the forest was missing as if a surgeon had come in the night and sawed the animal in two. A perfect division right down the spine left one side flesh and the other just black bone. It looked as though the animal had frozen in place and some giant hand picked her up and dipped her sideways into deadly acid that perfectly consumed the flesh to the water's level. The muscle and organs that had been spliced were frozen too, not a drop of blood nor a sick smell filled the air. The bones on the flesh side seemed white, normal. But the bones facing the old farmer were black as if charcoal. He composed himself, reached out to touch the bowl of the shoulder blade expecting soot on his fingers. He recoiled at the shock of their metallic firmness. Never had he seen such a sight. Not in wartime, read in books, or gaped at in side shows. This was an abomination.

He reached a rattling hand into his coat pocket, searching for his rosary. He found it—solid ground at last—and started chanting Hail Marys as he stared into the cavern of the heifer's ribs. Something caught the light, a flash of gold. He leaned forward and saw that hanging from a black ribbon was a golden locket. He prayed louder, as if to scream sense into the moment, as if to tame the experience into understanding. As he shouted, HAIL MARY, FULL OF GRACE. OUR LORD IS WITH THEE..." He reached into the black ribcage to remove the small pendant from the bones. It came away gently. It looked just as it didto the last time he saw it. His wife’s locket she was buried with.

Shaking now, covered in a cold sweat, Mauren took the locket into his cold hands and forced it open. If this really was his wife's jewelry their pictures taken in New York City in Central Park would be inside. His hands were clumsy, cracking, and starting to bleed from the cold but he persisted, his rosary dangling around the black ribbon in his hands. Inside on her side of the locket was his wife. She looked just as he remembered the photo, smiling under a flowering dogwood tree. Then he stopped his persistent prayer. Stood silent in the snow.

His photo was gone.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Chapter 3, part 1

Roslyn invited me into her small apartment, a frenzy of books, photographs, knickknacks, and paperwork. The detritus of two very different professions filled the small (but tidy) living space. Old leather-bound books with frayed spines stacked carefully among jars of seeds. A wooden display box under the end table said FLOWER PRESSINGS across it next to a leather doctor’s bag with the Lord’s cross surrounded by a snake eating its own tail stitched in gold thread. Everywhere I looked was a window into a peculiar marriage of peculiar people. So many stacks, rows, and shelves; little utilitarian pieces in their right place. It was like looking at a clockwork ant colony dipped in bronze - preserved indefinitely.

She gestured towards an overstuffed red chair and I sat down, worried my feet would knock over the small stack of wooden boxes in the space under my seat. This ordered chaos was too much to take in so I ignored it, trying to get Roslyn to simply start talking. I began to ask her about her uncle when she interrupted and politely asked if I wanted tea. I would have refused if she didn’t look like a kicked dog waiting to be forgiven. Outcasts can sense each other and it was clear that this woman needed a friend. She seemed upset. I had the wits about me to know if I pushed her too far I’d never get the information I needed, so I accepted the tea with a nod and a forced smile. It was hard to let myself be comfortable; my mind was reeling. Besides the odd image in the glass that had rattled me I was worried Lara and Meredith would notice my absence. If they started poking around town looking for me this chance meeting may be cut short. I hoped Sir was content in his traces. I wasn’t content in mine.

Roslyn noticed my wandering thoughts and raised an eyebrow at me while handing me a cup of her strange brew. It was an herbal tea and I took a sip without caution. I was taken aback with wide eyes. The surprise was welcome and I couldn’t stop my smile. I had expected lemon balm, Chinese black, or some sort of mint but instead I tasted a cup of berries and fruit. Notes of chamomile and something like cinnamon, but rounder sank into my body and warmed my belly like bourbon. I let out a sigh and it felt as if my thoughts had exhaled with my breath. Docile for a moment I closed my eyes and savored it. Roslyn poured herself a cup from the same teapot and sat down across from me on a padded stool. She took a sip and a deep breath and was transformed before. Back was the confident lioness I remembered from moments before, pruning roses in a window. All vulnerability had left those piercing eyes and I looked down at my own cup in wonder. Did this potion grant the drinker whatever emotional desire they wished? I needed a calm mind. She needed her self-possession? Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow and I just that as I swirled the leaves in the bottom cup, dancing among the orange liquid.

Just Herbs” Was her reply, a smile across her steady face. “Well, herbs and a splash of whiskey. We both seemed to need it.” I looked back down at my cup with decision and drank the rest in one gulp. Roslyn laughed quietly and did the same. We set them down on the end table and she nodded to herself, and then looked me right in the eye. “I’ll be frank with you, Darling. No one has ever asked me about that song, but it’s been on my mind these past few days. I think I saw something. Something that wasn’t supposed to be seen.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” She said as she gracefully poured herself a second cup, “that I think I saw the beast, the one from the song. I’m telling you this because I know you saw it, too.”

Now I really wanted another sip of whiskey. I didn’t know what to say so I just blinked at her. She waited and I sputtered out a confused “How…?”

“Anna. I have never spoken to you before, not once. We have lived in this town for some time now and it wasn’t until you heard me humming that song that you demanded a conversation.” She took a sip of her tea, and removed a strand of thick golden hair from her eyes to behind an ear. “I am not my husband, but give me a little credit. I know someone who has seen a ghost. And we’re not the only ones either.”

I was too scared to admit anything. My reputation was bad enough having lived with a man before marriage and now acting like one, managing a farm alone. To tell another person I was seeing black beasts in snowstorms was not going to sell more lambs. “What have you heard?”

“It started with another widow, Mrs. Pember. She came here a few days ago late in the night. Robert and I woke up to her banging on the shop door like she was being chased by the Devil himself. We let her in and she was white as the snow outside. She was in nothing but her nightdress, her bare feet black as if they had been dipped in ash. I thought it was frostbite, but it wasn’t. We grabbed a blanket and brought her upstairs, her black feet leaving no footprints as went. We sat her down in the same chair you are in now and Robert didn’t hide the whiskey in any fruit tea. She took three fingers worth of bourbon before she said things most of us wouldn’t confess in the light of day. “ Roslyn spoke calmly as if she was telling me the ingredients of bread. I sat still as a freshly switched child in a church pew. She continued; “She said she was in bed not an hour earlier. That she was fast asleep in the bedroom of her house on Second Street when she woke up feeling queer. Feeling as if she was being watched. “

“Mrs. Pember has not been quite right since her husband’s death last September.” I said this as calmly as possible, but the worlds came out in a stutter.

“Oh. And I suppose you have?”

I bristled at this, but said nothing. I had no right to speak against the impolite retort. Everyone in town new my farm was falling apart and I was still mourning. The only different between Mrs. Pember and I was our age and my advantage of having been left a business. Tight lipped, I frowned at my empty cup, more in self-pity than anything else. The lioness poured me more of her spiked tea and I meekly smiled up, having been put in my place. I took a sip, unsure if I liked or disliked this strange storyteller. I knew I liked Mrs. Pember though. Everyone knew the sixty-year-old widow had lost her husband the same way so many women did that month, the same flu that took my Adam. But unlike Ironale, she was left with nothing as much as a farm. She was left a large, lonely house and no children to care for her. She had a large white cat and rarely left her home save for the library. Books had become her closest friends. Most pitied her, but did so quietly. Few offer kindness in response to empathy. I felt a pang of guilt for not delivering her some of the salt pork when I was in town this morning. Roslyn went on:

“She told us she lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. All she could think of was her husband and how cold her cheeks felt in the cold night. She said the fire had gone out and she couldn’t rouse herself to restart it so she tried to count backwards into sleep again. But she couldn’t. Things felt too cold. Colder than she remembered the evening outdoors had been when she locked the door after closing the chicken coop door. Her breath started to swirl like smoke and her cheeks burned from the cold and that was too much so she got out of bed to restart the parlor stove. She told us she could not believe the cold, could not understand if she was sick or if the door had been blown open in the night? She started down the long hallway in her cold house, and stepped on that fat cat accidentally. Then the oddest occurrence endeavored. Mrs. Pember said she watched that cat hiss and scream but no sound came from it. She said everything was quiet as death. The grandmother clock did not tick and no wind could be heard even as she saw the shutters bang outside the windows. She thought she had gone death, and let out a gasp and heard her own breath as loud as fireworks. It was then, in the moment of realization that she looked down the long hallway and noticed her husband’s favorite cane. The same one with the fish head carved in silver he had been buried with.”

My eyes grew wide. Roslyn took note and set down her cup of tea.

“Wh..wha...what? What happened next?” I stammered.

“I don’t know.” She frowned. “I truly don’t. After that much of the story she turned to mumbling, shaking, and pointing towards the way she came. The only words I could make out were BLACK and teeth. She screamed BLACK and fell into herself at teeth. I could not make out any other words or intention. She was terrified beyond them anyway….” Roslyn looked off to the glass windows of her grand solarium. Her eyes followed the large trunk of the tree used as corner post of her whimsical backyard. “Do you see that bit of earth there, below the tree?”

I looked. I nodded. She turned back at me sharply and continued the retelling. “She jabbered and cried and then clawed and gabbed at Robert. I can only guess she knew he dealt with the Spirit World and suspected he could help. Robert was used to extreme reactions, the occasional scream or faint at a card table, but nothing like this. I never saw him so unsettled. He promised her he would go check on the house and grabbed his coat and bag and was out the door before I could stop him.” Roslyn’s eyes gazed back at the tree. “ With Robert gone I did my best to keep the Mrs. calm and a few more fingers of whiskey later she was exhausted into sleep. Robert returned not an hour later, Anna. Said he took notes and looked everywhere but there was no cane with a fish’s head on it. The fire was lit. The house was warm.”

I sat up in the chair, about to ask a question when she interrupted me yet again. “She stayed with us that night and in the morning when I awoke she was gone. I saw her later that day. I paid her a visit, to see how she was faring. She had on trousers, which I have never seen her wear before. Over sized, probably from some old chest of her husband’s. She acted busy and did not want my company. Said she must’ve been dreaming and apologized over and over. She seemed more embarrassed than afraid. A different woman than the night before.”

She waited for my response. I set down my teacup and looked over at the tree, her fascination with was starting to concern me.

“Mrs. Pember sounds like she had a horrible nightmare and felt appropriately sheepish for the discomfort she caused you.” I tried to sound confident but the least observant of children in our town could tell I was reeling. Roslyn was visibly angered at the flippant remark. She set down her teacup and got up from her seat and left the room. She returned with just a bottle of whiskey without the excuse of herbal tea. She stood before me, a few feet from my person. She smiled and poured another drink into my half-drank cup. I let out a small exclamation as the liquor splashed onto my shawl. She bent down at the waist, hovering just above my head and whispered calmly.

“Anna. I want you to glance at that tree again without looking at it. Can you do that? From the corner of your eye I want you to see what is on that bit of spare earth where the grass does not grow. “

I stretched my eyes to the side without turning my head. There was a black cane with a fish head standing up straight as if someone was holding it there. The earth below it cracked and viscous, black as the feet under Mrs. Pember’s trousers.