Short Story Friday

Spooky Babysitter

by 

Christian Terry

Ashley’s fork cut through what was left of her tiramisu. Her client’s daughter had been put down for almost an hour. The silence of the house meant that she should be studying but the tiramisu was so delicious. After finishing her dessert Ashley opened her laptop double clicking on her document files.

Now that she had the freedom she was sure she would have the rest of the night to herself to finish her project. As she opened the documents pictures of various newspaper headlines flashed across the monitor. Her assignment that her professor gave would have her follow the trail of supernatural happenings in neighboring towns. Things like “leprechauns in trees” to “ghostly images and sounds ” “unexplained disappearances”.

The point of the assignment was to find why are people wanting these “tales of make believe” to be real? Ashley wasn’t sure what to make of all of this. She believed that if she could see it she would believe it for herself. Her computer monitor flickered for a second before completely darkening. A sharp squawking from upstairs made her blood run cold. It also reminded her that the only person up the stairs was Lauren, the child she was sitting.

The family had no pets, a fact that ran through Ashley’s mind as she grabbed the fork she used to eat her tiramisu. She scampered up the stairs tightly gripping her silverware weapon in her fist. Once she reached the door she flung it open to see little Lauren asleep in the same position she had left her in. Perched at the foot of the bed was a blood red cardinal bird with a thumb sized roll of cotton in between its beak.Ashley flung her arms at the bird predicting that the bird would fly outside of the window across the room in which the bird did flapping its wings through the night air.

Lauren gave a yawn before speaking. “I had the weirdest dream miss Ashley. You saved me from a gigantic female pterodactyl and it was red!” She yelled in excitement rolling over on her pillow which she now found with a gaping hole in the center. “Miss Ashley…” the girl let out.

Ashley grabbed Lauren by the hand and stormed out of the house.

 

♦♦♦

 

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Short Story Friday–Wednesday Edition

Don’t read if you’ll be offended by me messing with biblical canon with impunity. Dante Alighieri did it, why can’t I?

A WOMAN’S FIRST DAY IN A CONVENT

by Amber Winter Barrow

Nun, zealous, grateful, statue, film, lick, attend, page, recognize, pomegranate

 

She’d been waiting for nearly an hour.
The paintings and portraits in the entrance to the convent were all the indication that she needed that she was where she should be. She was dark of hair, skin, and eye, a strange beacon in a place that put so much emphasis on purity in the form of light colors. Porcelain angels were clothed in a white so clear they looked like they were covered in fresh sparkling snow, their hair was the color of straw, and the image of their Lord was burdened with eyes so blue they could have been fragments of the sky itself.
She plucked a pomegranate from the bowl of assorted fruits on the table. The thing was red, firm, and in her hand it felt like a hardened heart. A selection of biblical scholars believe that Eve took a pomegranate from the tree of knowledge and not an apple. They would be right.
The symbolism around the fruit is as numerous as its seeds but the truth of the matter is far more sinister. The pomegranate was the literal and figurative representation of knowledge and wrapped up in that was woman’s agency. A pomegranate was not just the beginning of knowledge but the very representation of the feminine.
Was it evil for woman to know who she was? In a patriarchal society, power, agency, and knowledge for the woman, by the woman probably was evil. And that’s why the man who called himself God took woman’s agency away and turned it into a forbidden fruit.
A door behind her opened and a man stepped through. She put the fruit back down in the bowl and turned to face the man. He was dressed in a drab habit and most of his hair had fallen away in his old age. His skin was pale from years of walking the halls of the monastery.
“Friar Lenn,” he said by way of introduction. He did not extend a hand for a shake. Instead he looked her up and down as if examining a reptile that he wanted to squash.
“I was told I would meet with Sister Ruth.”
“She is otherwise occupied at the moment. Follow me, I’ll show you to your quarters.”
The friar didn’t ask her name and she didn’t offer it.
Knowledge is a heavy burden to bear. Ignorance is bliss. This man and everyone in this place would know her name soon enough.
The hallway beyond the main entrance was wide and long. Tall, stained glass windows drew out epic scenes from the Bible on one side and on the other a series of archways built into the wall opened up into a courtyard. A large kitchen garden was being attended by a handful of friars and nuns. At the end of the hall was a statue of Mother Mary herself, her stone gaze downcast with some semblance of sadness and kindness. Her hands placed together as if she were praying. On either side of her were two more stained glass windows butted up against doors. One was Mary Magdalene and the other was John the Apostle. The friar led her into the doorway next to Mary Magdalene and down yet another hall.
She glanced back at the statue of Mother Mary and wished her eyes held more of the kindness and happiness that had been there in her living days.
The new hall wasn’t as bright and colorful as the last instead the walls were lined with doors and small electric lights. Most technology had moved into the realm of LED lights and even plasma filaments, but this monastery was at least twenty years behind.
The friar led her to a door that looked indistinguishable from any of the others.
There was a small pallet with a mat on it. A simple pillow and blanket folded on top. There was an end table with a plain, brown leather bible on top and a little reading lamp next to it. She set down her things on the bed.
“You will attend to Sister Evelyn until you are oriented and given tasks and chores. She will be by shortly. There is an outfit in the closet. Change.” The friar turned and left the room with barely a nod goodbye. She couldn’t tell if the grumpiness was his normal state or because he was probably taken off his normal tasks to retrieve and deliver her to her room.
She took a moment too examine the room closer. There was a painting of Mother Mary on the wall. Again the sad expression on her face. What did the painters think they were capturing by making her look like that?
There was a small closet opposite the bed and she opened it. As the friar had said there was indeed a nun’s habit inside. She took it out and quickly changed. The fabric was rough but well worn. It was probably handed down from nun to nun, so she would not be the first to wear it, but she hoped she would be the last.
There was a knock at the door and it opened. A woman stepped in and stopped in her tracks. The recognition on her face when they locked gazes was apparent.
“Lilith!”
“Evelyn, I assume? You really need to be more creative with your names Eve.”
“I don’t need to hear that from you. What are you doing here?”
“Exactly what you’re doing.”
“No. You are doing the exact opposite of what I’m doing!”
“Eve, we are both trying to dismantle an institution that has corrupted itself.”
“Be that as it may, Lil, at least I am not going around turning the nunneries into cabalistic epicenters of feminist rage.
“You have to admit that my methods have been more successful.”
“Faster and more explosive but I don’t know about more successful.”
“What are you trying this time?”
Eve rolled her eyes and closed the door behind her. The illusion obscuring her true appearance faded away and the woman who had been created to be Adam’s subservient wife, and unquestioning sex slave after Lilith had rejected those prospects appeared before her once again.
“I’m quietly telling the nuns to follow their dreams.”
“And how’s that working out for you?”
“Some of them honestly believe their dream is to be married to the church.” Eve sat on the end of the bed and sighed heavily. Her hair was a bright blood red, and her skin nearly as pale as bone. The signs that she was created from the blood and bone of another. A smattering of freckles, one for each of the hundreds of children she bore to Adam, crossed her nose and cheeks. Adam and Lilith had been created from the dust and clay of the earth and were both dark featured. Eve hid her pale skin and striking red hair under an illusion that made her look like a plain woman with mouse brown hair.
Lilith, Adam, and Eve were all direction creations of God and therefore perfect in every way and their appearance alone was enough to stop any person in their tracks. Lilith only softened her features a bit. Looking like a supermodel going into a convent usually got more attention then her dark skin so she made it easier.
“If you had let me continue with the free love movement in the 60s all this would probably be a moot point.” Lilith sat on the bed next to her friend.
“You were losing control of it.”
“I had everything under control. You weren’t thinking big picture enough.”
“Big picture? Lil, I have been on the same page with you helping me dismantle the church from the inside but I can’t sit by and let you hurt my children, even if they do it to themselves in misguided hedonism.”
“Even after all this time you still think of them as your children.”
“They are.”
“They don’t know you. You’re a side note in their religious texts, and most of your story has been erased from even the apocrypha.”
“What about you? Some of them are your children too!”
Where Adam had been made from the ridgid rocks and dust of their homeland, Lilith had been created from watery clay. Her adherence to gender was fluid and she could transition between the two as easily as the moon crossed the sky.
At one time, Lilith had walked the earth as a man named Joseph. He had fallen in love with a woman named Mary. They had had a child, and God had punished him for assuming to think he could live a human life, and had changed the narrative around the birth of his son to fit into some prophecy. And then that prophecy had killed their child.
The images of Jesus didn’t even look like the real Jesus. Her real son had been dark of skin and hair as she was. His brown eyes had been bright and intelligent and he had always known more than he should have. Jesus had never had a child of his own, but his brother, born ten years after Jesus had gone on to have many children. She could see it in the faces of some people, reflections of her sons long past, and sometimes even worse, she could see Mary in their eyes. Especially the compassionate ones.
“That’s why I want to free them so badly from this… this dogma of isolation and adherence to a god that no longer exists Their church corrupts, and allows more corruption to rise in the absence of compassion or understanding. They exist saying that they are all children in the eyes of God and yet act as if they are the chosen ones.”
They fell into a mildly uncomfortable silence. This argument wasn’t new. Every couple decades they would cross paths and inevitably have the same argument again. There never seemed to be any middle ground they could reach. Even though they wanted the same thing Lilith thought Eve was too soft and Even thought Lilith was too hard.
“You know,” Lilith said. “We’ve only been going after the small convents and churches, don’t you think it’s time to go bigger?”
“Bigger?”
“We haven’t messed with anything higher than the Bishops in decades, we ought to try to go after the Pope himself.”
“I did that. Who do you think got Pope Joan into the papal house?”
“I thought that was fiction.”
Eve’s smile was grim. “The Archbishops killed her and replaced her. Like you and me her story was scrubbed out of the history books.”
“Joan was said to have hid her gender and that’s how she got in, we have to get someone in despite her gender.”
Eve shook her head. “These zealous men are hard to work with.”
“So we shouldn’t try? Eve, I’ve never known you to give up! Even after Adam–”
“Leave him out of this.” Her tone was sharp and her expression left no room for argument.
Lilith raised her hands in surrender. “Apologies.”
Adam had abandoned Eve after she had taken Lilith’s side after the death of Jesus. Despite knowing herself and her freedom she had still followed Adam across the earth, indulging his hubris and never taking anything for herself. Until the day after Lilith’s son had been crucified and the heaven and the earth had literally shaken. Lilith had called on the angel Lucifer, her long time friend and companion, and he had helped her storm heaven in her rage. Lucifer had been God’s favorite angel in spite of Lucifer’s love of humanity. In the end, heaven had been broken, God was missing, and the angels still on God’s side out for Lucifer’s blood.
“What did Sister Ruth say to you about your stay here?”
“She didn’t. I was led here by a friar.”
Eve’s eyes widened and she stood. “A friar? Where was Sister Ruth?”
“He claimed she was occupied.”
Eve cussed uncharacteristically and her illusion of being a plain woman reformed. “I’ve been found out again.”
“What? Again?”
The door opened and the friar and a man in a black outfit stood in the doorfarme.
“You, demoness, I shall exorcise you and this woman! May God have mercy on whatever souls you have left” The man in black said and pushed forwards.
“Stop this, friar! I am no demon!”
“You come into this sacred place and whisper poison into the nun’s ears, who else could you be. Especially knowing that you associate with… that.” The friar pointed at Lilith.
Interesting. Did they know who she was?
“How do you know who she is?” Eve asked.
“We were notified to keep an eye out for her and a red headed witch. We got one of them and you shall both be removed from this world.”
“Adam,” Eve hissed.
“Adam?” Lilith asked.
The exorcist turned the pages of his book quickly reading the words. The poor fools. Lilith and Eve had been created outside the confines of the natural world. Exorcism spells held no power over them regardless of the fact that Lilith and Eve weren’t demons.
The friar realized pretty quickly that nothing was happening and reached into his habit and pulled out an ancient pistol.
Lilith moved quickly and stood in front of Eve raising her voice above that of the frightened exorcist. “I am she that came before Eve, I am she that was cast out of the Garden of Eden for assuming I was equal to Adam. I am she that would not bow, or bend, or break. I was called a demoness, and I was the one who entered the Garden of Eden as a serpent and told Eve to take her freedom back.”
Eve didn’t argue, but Lilith knew the declaration annoyed her. After all these years Lilith knew her like a sister.
The Friar and the exorcist stared at Lilith in horror as she began to change in a dragon. Her form filled the room and broke through the walls. The men screamed in terror as a pair of huge wings arced over them. The dragon licked its lips and snorted at them as if sizing them up for a meal.
Eve didn’t wait for an invitation and dropped the illusion as she climbed on the dragon’s back. The dragon leapt out of the hole in the top of the monastery and flew up into the sky. Eve hugged the dragon’s neck and whispered grateful words into its ear.
“Adam knows what we are doing,” Eve said after they landed in a parking lot behind an outdoor movie theater. The film showing on the screen was a children’s movie about dragons. Appropriate. None of the humans noticed us. We were invisible to their eyes for now.
“So what do you want to do?”
Eve stared at the screen, the light flickering in her eyes. “How keen is Lucifer to come out of hiding?”
Lilith grinned. “You know he’s sweet on you, he’ll come running as soon as you lift your finger.”
Eve nodded and visibly blushed. “Call him. It’s time to go to war again. For my children, and yours.”

-Fin-

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Short Story Friday–Monday Edition ☠️

Behind the Scenes at the Theater

by

Johi Jenkins

September 20, 2019

Words: loneliness, applaud, beg, jogging, memorize, admit, solitude, converse, eternity, marsh

October is just around the corner and all the coffee shops have already busted out all the fall flavors. Outside the air stirs, still warm but with the occasional chilly draft. The fall equinox is only a few days away. Alex is excited for the change and ready to let go of this dreadful summer haze.

The summer had been awful. Loneliness had been his constant companion; he’d been unemployed; a small-town wannabe actor freshly moved to the big city looking for acting work. He’d had a hell of a rough time, unable to join in with the rest of the city as everyone cherished those precious few weeks of perfect weather.

But then, right at the end of summer, last week, things finally improved: he got a job. Not just any job. He was finally invited to join one the most successful theater companies in the city, Elysium Theatre, and a role in their current award-winning production, The Last Victim.

Today is his first day. During his interview he already decided he loved the company. He’d met most of the actors and the stage crew, although of course he didn’t even lay eyes on the main actors. The big shots were just way too important and busy to ever hang out with the main company. They hardly come out to rehearsals, Alex learned to his disappointment, although he wasn’t surprised. He had especially wanted to meet Ben Morgan, the lead actor in the play, who had been Alex’s inspiration to become an actor, and his motivation to join this particular theater company. But Alex is thrilled nonetheless—he might not even see him, but he’s going to be in a freaking play with his hero!

Alex is the first one in. He came jogging from his studio apartment; he was too excited to sit still. He didn’t know what time everyone comes in to the rehearsals, so he chose to arrive an hour early, to be safe. Inside the designated auditorium, some lights are on but there’s no one around. He sits on a chair in the front row.

“Hello,” he hears a voice above him.

He looks up and sees—Ben Morgan? Holy crap!

“Hi, Mr. Morgan,” he stammers.

“Please, dude. Call me Ben.” Ben descends a metal ladder that’s propped against the lighting platform above the stage where he had apparently been, doing who knows what in solitude. About halfway down he jumps off and lands with uncanny grace on the stage. He sits on the ledge, right across from Alex’s chair.

“Right. Ben. I’m Alex. I’m new. I’m playing the banker, the smallest part, I know, barely two lines, but just the fact that I’m in this company, wow, I’m so excited and humbled. And to have my one scene be with you—well, the young version of Caleb, that’s, well, just, incredible.” Wow. Halfway through that logorrhea Alex knew he should stop talking, but he was so nervous that he just kept babbling on. He takes a breath to steady himself because he feels like he wants to talk some more to apologize, or to explain himself, or just to fill the silence, but he decides it might just be best to never speak again.

Ben is looking at him strangely. In his eyes there is a mixture of pity and humor. “Well, Alex, nice to meet you. But let me correct you, so you don’t go around spreading false statements.”

“Huh? What do y—”

“The banker. He’s not the smallest part. He may have only two lines, but he’s one of the most important characters in the story. He’s the pivotal person in Caleb’s life; the one who changes the course of Caleb’s whole life, when he says those two lines.”

Speechless, Alex can’t reply with words other than reciting the lines he’d already memorized, in a half whisper. “ ‘Young man, I’ve been watching you. I believe I know someone who might be quite excited to meet you.’ ”

“Aha.” Ben holds his index finger up and displays a dazzling smile. “And who did the banker mean by someone?”

“The benefactor. Mr. Lawrence.”

“Yes. And Lawrence changed Caleb’s life,” Ben reminds him. “Had it not been for the banker, Caleb wouldn’t have met Lawrence, and he wouldn’t have risen to where he did.”

“I guess,” Alex stammers.

Ben cocks his head to the side as if considering the young nobody before him. “Did you know that The Last Victim is based on a real-life story?”

“No, I didn’t,” Alex has to admit.

“My character, Caleb, is based on a young man who lived in the 50’s. His name was Charles, and he was an orphan. Just like in the play, Charles struggled in life, had many afflictions; and on one particularly bad day, having almost given up hope, he met the banker. The banker saw past the unfortunate circumstances that plagued Charles and saw only his beauty. He introduced him to his wealthy acquaintance, believing this acquaintance would be interested in Charles. And he was right. The wealthy friend took an instant liking to Charles and became his benefactor. We all know what happens next.” Ben pauses for effect, then he narrows his eyes and smiles that knowing smile of his. “But here is where the play differs drastically from the real story. In the play, Caleb goes back to his hometown as a wealthy man, and he purges the men who spurned him as an orphan, right? But in real life, Charles went back to his hometown, alright… but he killed those men.”

“What?” Alex’s face puckers in disbelief. “Just for mocking him?” In the play, one of the things young Caleb struggles with is being bullied by a few older boys that he works with. Later after he’s rich, he has them convicted and put in jail.

“They did more than mock him,” Ben explains. “They beat him up so bad, he couldn’t defend himself. He couldn’t even beg for his life. They left him for dead in the marsh where they worked. But he lived, he healed, and he persisted. He quit that job, went to a bank to borrow money to start a business. He met the banker. His life changed. And later when he was powerful, he went back and got his revenge.”

“Is that true?” Alex asks, unease creeping up his spine. “And he killed them?”

“Yes,” is Ben’s smart reply.

“But how did he do it?” Alex doesn’t really want to believe the supposed real version of the story, so his words are partially laced with disbelief. He doesn’t know where Ben is going with this, but it sounds like the guy wants to tell this story, so might as well ask him.

“I mean, how did he manage it? There were three of them and one of him.”

“There were eight of them and one of him.” Ben drops that in a deadpan voice. “In real life,” he adds.

Alex begins to get a weird vibe. Is Ben messing with him, or what? “So he paid people to do it, or…?”

“Alex, what the popular version of the story which we act out every night fails to mention is… the so-called benefactor, Lawrence, who in real life was named Lehmann, was actually a powerful vampire who fell in love with his intended victim, the little orphan boy that his banker friend brought to him as a gift. The vampire bestowed the gift of immortality on the young Charles. Not right away. Lehmann saw young Charles as a little pet; well, a pet that you have an intimate relationship with. But after some time he turned him into a vampire. And just like Caleb returns to his hometown as an adult in the play, Charles returned as an adult, albeit a vampire one, and had fun getting his revenge.”

Alex realizes his mouth is hanging open and quickly closes it. Ben is obviously joking, but he sounds so serious, Alex doesn’t know how best to reply. He looks at Ben expecting the face to reveal the butt end of the joke, or some clue as to why he’s hearing this fictional story from one of the most renowned actors in modern theater, but the man remains as serious as if he was retelling a news story from last week. Alex decides to play along. He never dreamed he’d converse like this with Ben Morgan on his first day; might as well roll with it.

“Wow, um. So, how do you know all this?”

“I play Caleb. It’s my job to know his character well, inside and out; what is written in the play, and what is not written.”

“Okay,” Alex says, frustrated with the lack of answers and not exactly knowing how he should react to Ben’s story. “Well, if Charles was a vampire, did he even die, like Caleb?”

The Last Victim is named so in reference to the main character, Caleb. After becoming rich and using his power and influence to get his revenge, his decisions gradually cross into the gray area of questionable judgment. Not being particularly trained in morality or ethics, and being quite young, he chooses to bestow assistance to people or deal punishment as his whims dictate. In the end, one particular bad decision puts the life of another young boy in peril; and Caleb, finally seeing his folly, dies tragically in a fire to save the boy, who reminds him of his former innocent self, in a gallant attempt to redeem himself. Thus, he is his own “last victim”.

“A vampire would’ve survived that fire,” Alex challenges. “He would’ve been fast enough to save the boy and save himself.”

Ben’s expression changes and his voice fills with sorrow. “He did perish in the fire. He started it, and both him and the innocent boy died in it. The boy never made it out. Charles didn’t save him. He watched as the smoke claimed the boy and had no remorse. It was Lehmann who killed Charles, finally realizing he had lost control of his little pet. So you see, Charles didn’t die in the fire like Caleb did in the play, but he equally died because of it.”

Alex, temporarily forgetting this story can’t possibly be real, feels awful for the little boy who didn’t make it out of the fire. The play, despite being a tragedy, is generally liked because this one sweet innocent unnamed kid is saved.

“So it was all a lie?” he demands. “Saving the boy, Caleb’s sacrifice?”

Ben shrugs dejectedly. “The writer didn’t like the ending, so he wrote a different one.”

“Well, he shouldn’t have,” Alex says a bit angrily. “Everyone thinks Caleb was this great tragic hero. They all applaud him, and he was an asshole.”

“He was an asshole, but Lehmann loved him. He had turned Charles into a vampire because he wanted to spend an eternity with him. Lehmann felt guilty, thinking he should’ve taught Charles better, guided him better.” He sighs. “It was Lehmann who wrote the story.”

“Wait, what? Lehmann—Lawrence? He’s the author?” Alex tries to remember the writer’s name. He can think of the playwright, but not the original author.

“Yes.”

“Wait.” The author of a real play and the vampire in a fictional story clashing in his confused brain is too much for Alex at the moment. He covers his eyes with a hand, trying to reassess. Of all the things that don’t make sense, the one question that comes out is, “How do you know all this?”

He asked the same question earlier, but in a whole different frame of mind. Disbelief back then, mostly. This time, he wants to know. This time is different.

This time, Ben replies honestly.

“I’m Lehmann.”

He looks into Alex’s eyes, deep into his soul, it feels like. And Alex immediately knows. It’s all true.

“Would you like to know … more?” Ben Morgan hops off the stage and extends his hand down to Alex.

Alex takes the offered hand.

“I would love to.”

***
The END

 

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Short Story Friday

A New Love Blooms in Old Age

by
Victoria Clapton

 

I walked the dusty path that led to the family cemetery located beneath some spindly old cedar trees on the expansive property of the looming Eirewood Plantation. On my way, I stopped to eat a few of the tart bitter blackberries growing there and pondered on how I’d come to such a quiet place.

The sprawling white Greek Revival sat imposing in the sunlight. The tall, thick columns stood stately, supporting the two story gargantuan house while the rocking chairs on the front porch silently invited someone to relax and rock a spell,taking in the beauty of the Southern landscape. Though I had trekked some distance from the house, I could still see the majesty of the house patiently waiting for something, or maybe someone. It’s empty loneliness bothered me very little. At first sight, I was overcome with the feeling of having always been here, having belonged. Whatever the reason, this home was not alone anymore.

Three weeks ago, I received a letter in the mail requesting my presence at McAllister and McAllister Law Firm to claim an inheritance from an anonymous benefactor.

Upon meeting with them, Misters McAllister and McAllister led me to a polished long cherry table in what must have once been the dining room in the old Victorian house they’d converted into their law firm, and there over tall glasses of ice tea, they informed me that I’d inherited the two hundred year old house and the surrounding land that made up Eirewood Plantation from an absolute stranger. Despite my fervent attempt to refuse such a preposterous gift, the McAllisters presented me with the deed, already in my name, and bid me to have a good day.

Now, I stood somewhere between the hulking house and the graveyard filled with crumbling tombs all sporting the name “O’ Brady”, trying to figure out what I was going to do with this unasked for and unusual gift. Unaffected by my presence, a large, husky squirrel bounced from one oak tree to the next as if rejoicing at my arrival.

For a spring afternoon, it was a bit chilly beneath the shade of the trees, and just like the house, this piece of land had a feeling of waiting. A solitary rusted out shovel discarded by the old stone wall surrounding the graves solidified the feeling of a space frozen in time.

“Welcome to Eirewood, Ms. Endicott.” From behind one of the twisted oaks, stepped a nice-looking gentleman wearing light pants, a blue cutaway coat and holding a top hat that he’d just removed from his head in his hands.His cream colored silk cravat accentuated his dapper look. “I’ve been waiting for you to return.”

Startled by his unannounced presence, I took a step back from him but not before I noticed his uniquely light colored eyes. The color of frozen ice, just barely blue, they were visible even in the dappled afternoon light.

“Thank you. Wait, return? I’m sorry, Sir, but I have never been here,” I insisted then introduced myself. “You may call me Eilene I have recently acquired Eirewood Plantation, so I’ve come to see what it’s all about.”

The man moved closer to me. His handsome looks struck a chord in my heart, a memory I couldn’t quite grasp, even if his clothing and manners were two hundred years out-of-date. Perhaps he was here for one of those reenactments I’d heard about history buffs having. Either way, something about his demeanor drew me towards him. My fingers tingled, itching to reach out and touch this mysterious stranger.

“Eilene,” He said my name slowly as if he was savoring his favorite sound. “Then you may call me Jonathan. I’m Jonathan O’Brady.”

“O’Brady?” I recalled the names on the tombstones just behind Jonathan, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. The intensity he watched me with was unnerving and somewhat alluring. There was just something about him, something I couldn’t exactly put my finger on. “Jonathan, are you kin to the people who owned this house? Do you know why the previous owners would leave it to me?”

“You kept your promise,” was his reply. “You vowed that you’d return, that not even death could keep us apart.”

My heart sped up as I processed this stranger’s words. “You have me confused with someone else.”

“Oh?” Jonathan offered his hand to me. “Then let me show you, my love.”

I should have ran off, gotten away as fast I could and called the cops on this crazy anachronistic man. Instead, without any hesitation at all, I rested my hand in the crook of his offered arm and allowed him to guide me back into the shaded cemetery. We weaved around graves, one O’Brady after another, until we reached a battered Celtic cross. At the base was the epitaphs and memories of two.

Eilene O’Brady                 Jonathan O’Brady
Born April 30, 1832              Born November 1 1825
Died May 14 1862                  Died May 14 1862
Eternally Yours

Something in my subconscious stirred, awakening memories of someone else’s life, promises made by a woman I was not. I should have fled. I should have gotten away as fast as I could. I didn’t know what this man was trying to pull, but I wanted no part of it.

Then I made the mistake of looking up from the tomb into Jonathan’s love-filled eyes. Within their pale depths, I saw that he, too, had been waiting. Just like the house and this land, he had been waiting for his love from an old age long gone to begin again-new.

♥♥♥

 

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Short Story Friday

Bright Lights & Chilly Nights

by

Anne Marie Andrus

 

Setting sun trickled through colored glass, illuminating mirrored letters behind the bar until LEGENDS sparkled like lost gold from an enchanted city. The bartender brazenly whistled off key and polished curved mahogany with a vintage rag. According to the calendar, autumn was still two weeks away but last night he felt “it” for the first time this year. That fleeting bite of a rogue breeze and rustle of dying leaves followed by a whiff of fragrant firewood. His favorite season was right around the corner—exciting and bittersweet—ruthless and glorious, all at the same time. Baseball was more than a game; it was a way of life that lasted from February all the way through October. Only one team would win their final contest and then silence would descend until next season.

Behind the bar, numbered beer mugs hung from pegs. The bartender glanced over his shoulder at a still empty parking lot and picked out the prized #7 and #42 mugs for two regulars who would arrive first. Always gleeful Yankees fans. Grumpy Boston #34 would be close behind followed by perpetually hopeful Mets #31. A lucky few would be in attendance at the big ballparks in October. The rest would be on bar stools watching their teams pack up lockers and lug golf clubs through private airports while arch rivals padded win-loss records and secured coveted home-field advantage.

The bartender eyeballed bottles of top shelf bourbon—the perfect elixir to calm nerves that would be frayed moments after the roar of the pre-game flyover faded. As players waxed poetic about fan appreciation and stadium acoustics, experts sounded alarm bells over statistics and injuries. Lifetime baseball addicts agonized over traveling ghosts and whether the powers of aura and mystique would be making a nightly appearance. Despite all the famous curses being broken, from The Bambino to The Billy Goat, dread of the jinx never really vanished, it merely slunk into the shadows ready for ambush on a supremely pivotal play. Innings would crawl by, pitch by agonizing pitch, unless the home team was losing of course…then it seemed to get late early. A wise quote from a true legend so many years ago.

Outside, music blared and tires screeched to a stop on loose gravel. The bartender waited for the door to slam open before he shouted. “Most important pitch of the game?”

“Strike One.” Mug #42 tossed her auburn hair back and slid into her usual seat. “Most exciting two words in sports?”

The bartender picked up the TV remote and grinned. “Game Seven.”

 


October 18, 2003…2 nights after the Game Seven, Aaron Boone home run…

 

Short Story Friday!

Circus Folks Are People Too

by
Christian Terry

 

” They don’t pay to see you, Chuck! No one who comes to the circus pays to see some rinky dink clown!” Paul said as saliva flew from his lips nearly landing on Chuck’s face paint. “It’s all about the danger, getting their hearts pumping, not some sad freak spraying with a seltzer water at people.” He continued.

Lauren, the featured trapeze artist stepped in between the two men to end the confrontation. “Leave Chuck alone!” She barked. “If only you knew what it took to make an entire arena laugh and to keep them entertained.”

“If it isn’t little Lauren, the professional tumbler no one asked for. I wish I had the time to tell you how much you weren’t needed, but the show is starting.” With that, Paul brushed passed them both exiting the curtain tightening the grip on his leather whip.

“Don’t worry about him, babe. The people love you, you’re naturally clumsy so that helps. The show needs you.”

“Thanks for that coach. I’ll see you after the show.” Chuck said, his voice low from the encounter.

Lauren, sensing that her boyfriend was upset, tugged him by his checkered handkerchief scarf, pulling him toward her face, planting a deep, intense kiss across Chuck’s red colored lips. “Hey, is that my lipstick you’re wearing?” Lauren asked.

“Would you look at the time , I have to go on stage now. ” Chuck said while running through the curtain.

The show had started like it had done a million times before. Chuck mingling with the crowd, soaking some poor kids with his bottle of seltzer water. Lauren performed her high wire act to an standing ovation. The elephants marched in a circle dancing around the center ring of the three ring circus. To the left of the elephants the jugglers were flinging flaming torches at one another in a frenzy.

A thunderous roar shortly accompanied by sharp cries halted all of the action. Chuck glanced to the third ring and saw Paul lying on his back as the giant lion had him pinned to the ground. Chuck zoomed to the third ring clutching his seltzer bottle. Paul eyed the clown while wrestling with the lion, the lion’s teeth inches from his face. Chuck was afraid, but he couldn’t let Paul die.

“Hey, Mister lion didn’t you know that eating coworkers is bad for digestion, I’m going to write a stern letter to human resources about this.” Chuck said nervously. He sprayed his bottle, nearly emptying it unto the beasts back causing the mighty feline to remove himself from on top of Paul and rest his sights on the clown that wet him. Chuck dashed on to the platform behind him as the lion gave chase. Near the edge of the ring Chuck saw familiar highlighted marks in shape of a large rectangle on the ground near his feet which were inside of it.

He then turned to see the lion several feet away. Chuck raised both of his hands. That was the cue. As he raised his arms, the lion launched towards Chuck as he rolled out of the way. What the animal didn’t see was an iron cage falling from above him lining up with the highlighted marks on the floor. The beast was captured. Paul glared at the bewildered clown for a moment before starting the slow clap. The entire arena joined in. Chuck took a well deserved bow.

♦♦♦

Find and Follow 

⇓⇓⇓

Christian Terry

Short Story Friday

SUSPENDED ECHOES

by Elizabeth Lemons

I rode silently in the carriage
An evil henchman at the reins
Towards escape, relief upon arrival
Fleeing abuse and tear-dried stains

Deeper into the ghostly forest
Near others, I would no longer dwell
For soon, my home would become solitude
A personal, but necessary hell

Seemingly, it felt like a repeated journey
A complete reversal of my way of life
Over hills, and vales, and forgotten trails
Closing the door on earthbound strife

My arrival day was misty and forlorn
Driving through stalagmite trees without leaves
Decaying on the autumn ground beneath weeping limbs
Curled dying oak and maple with moss sleeves

I felt as though I was returning
To a place where I have always been
Though I’d never walked in these woods before
Like an echo, something magnetically drew me in

Stopping the clock, this place speaks of agelessness
Suspending time, one gains all the time in the world
Making my way forward, by learning how to stand still
Sacrifice becomes all these, unfurled

Recognizing the pall of great mourning here
Arrival brought to my eyes, immediate tears
My heart wailed with overwhelming sadness
Unspoken sorrow I’d hidden away for years

Through veil and premonition’s myst
The hangman’s card reveals waters clear
Insight known by gypsy gift
Revelation scryed by ancient seer

Intuition arrives and parts the filmy lace
It calls this inconsolable place our home
It is a gateway which exists for those of us
Forgotten, afraid and left alone

I’m the Keeper, the Watcher, the One who Waits
Countless souls seem drawn to me
For they walk these hills, never really escape
Without exit, repeating eternity

Voices whisper, and moving shadows near the Willow
Require healing, clearly seen as I see you
White images, dark figures gather on this hillside
Stand with non-living wounded, I enjoy the same view

Late at night, near the woods I can often hear
Wheels of a turning carriage, as it comes down the road
Bringing more lost souls and broken hearts
To dwell in this forsaken abode

Delusion descends upon arrival
Entombed inside the deep wounded woods of iniquity
Loss promises a quiet tomorrow
Embracing this repetitious portal of necessity

~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~

 

HER BLEEDING HEART

 

a poem and short story by Elizabeth Lemons

 

As the night-black carriage winged its way around the curving gravel road, Madeleine was immersed in a moldy, damp leaf smell, it was earthy and mossy. A slight chill wove its way through the half-light hills, through the “holler” where two hills surrounded the road, and the sun was just a couple of hours away from setting behind the trees. The trees were not welcoming; they were tall, looming and a bit foreboding. It felt as if eerie eyes were peering at Madeleine as she drove by in the rolling carriage with an evil henchman at the reins. They were unseen, these eyes, well-hidden behind the dark pallor of fallen limbs and piles of colorful but beginning-to-rot Autumn leaves. There was a sense of oppressive loss in this place. Madeleine shivered, feeling as if she was being led to her own death, that nothing good at all could possibly come from being drawn to a county work farm. It made her want to cry.

Madeleine McBride glanced down at her young thin hands, fraught with worry. Since she was a child, she had maintained a persistent habit of balling her fingers into tightly-made fists when she became anxious or annoyed or afraid, and right now, she was squeezing so hard, that her fingers were turning crimson blood red. Riding in the back of a somber black carriage, dark-haired Maddie leaned back into the luxurious burgundy-colored leather seating and she gazed out the window. They drove deeper and further into the Tennessee backwoods, away from the smoothly paved town streets and clusters of cheerfully painted clapboard houses and were now slowly traversing down a rocky and rough country hillside road known as Rural Route 4, with scarcely a home, barn or soul in sight. This forlorn area was remote, far, far away from the gentile southern life she had known growing up with her father, Thomas Riley McBride, for the past twenty-five years. It had broken his heart when he, a small-town doctor, had been unable to come to the aid of his own dear wife. Sadly, Madeleine’s mother, Sarah, had died very quickly and tragically with yellow fever in 1814, when Madeleine had been just 7 years old.

Years had passed, and now, her father was gone, as well. T. Riley’s life had recently been insanely cut short upon a senseless pistol duel with a foul-mouthed gambler from town named Ezra Evans. The two men had been rivals since their childhood school days. Ezra was almost always cruel and thoughtless and downright mean to everyone, while T. Riley McBride was known as being generous, kind and a good friend to all his neighbors, and so charming, even when he was being mischievous.

It seems that T. Riley and Ezra had played an “all or nothing” game of poker at the local dance hall on one fateful late summer evening, and a desperately-short-on-luck T. Riley had come up without the winning hand. Not believing that Ezra, his old school chum, (Ezra was secretly jealous of T. Riley) would hold him to their “drunken” wager shenanigans, T. Riley refused to sign the deed to relinquish his and Maddie’s lovely Southern farm and home. Consequently. Ezra had challenged T. Riley to a duel of “honour”, in which the winner would take undisputed ownership of the green rolling pastures, grand home and outbuildings.

Ezra Evans shot T. Riley so quickly that Maddie never even got to say goodbye to her father. The day had been a lovely, it was in September of 1832, on a day in which the sky was clear blue and the leaves had faintly begun to tinge golden, and the apple harvest was abundant. With the winner taking the spoils, Ezra had generously allowed Maddie just three weeks to vacate her family’s old Southern home place. Daily, she packed and sorted and gave away things to workers on the farm or to neighbors, trying to make something good out of foul circumstances, if she could.

One stormy afternoon as she was packing, Maddie was shocked to discover amongst her father’s stored-in-the-attic papers, not a death certificate of her long-gone mother, but instead, a deviously-contrived document which stated that her mother, Sarah, had been committed to an asylum for the mentally ill. Madeleine could not believe her jovial father had concocted such a blatant farce. Why had he stolen her mother from her? Madeleine had been quite young, but, even so, she remembered her mother to be gentle and kind. She had been a thoughtful and good mother, certainly not unstable!

Digging through more papers, she realized that her father had made other reckless decisions that involved their security, he was in horrific debt due to his generosity with his patients across several counties who lacked proper means for medical care, and other poor investments, and so he had been compelled to sell the 2000 acres of the good farming land that was given solely to Sarah upon her marriage to him. It would not be missed, he justified to her as he pleaded for her to sell, “we will still have another 700 acres on which to farm”. When she refused to sell her land to cover some of T. Riley’s bad debts, he diabolically plotted a way to be able to sell the property, with or without his wife’s consent. Her mother had not died of illness but had been put away, as women often were, often being deemed hysterical in those days when they challenged their husbands or felt inclined to disagree with authority, and there was no one to help her. He told authorities she had died, and that was that.

In all reality, T. Riley had had her mother committed to a County Poor House farm, basically it was a rural asylum, a forgotten residence where orphans, indigents, undiagnosed ill and insane, and in general, the county’s “unwanted” were left on their own, to muster up their own survival the best that they could off the land. As Madeleine read the description, she learned that the Poor House was where people who had no other family or money were put “aside” so that they could try to make it together instead of being alone in the world. They were expected to work in whatever capacity they could to earn their keep. The county provided land and shelter, sometimes seed, and sometimes a kind neighbor or two would gift the farm with a hog or surplus cloth, jam., vegetables, whatever they could spare. The father Maddie had loved and thought she had always admired and adored suddenly became a horrific fiend in Maddie’s mind and with this revelation, she wanted nothing more than to leave this now-empty home that she now-knew had been built and maintained upon years and years of lies.

Upon writing a letter to the County Poor House Farm overseer, Maddie made a request to be allowed to stay at the farm along with her mother for a short while, just until she and Sarah could formulate some kind of plan for what would be next in their life. She was so hurried; she did not have time to await a reply. Maddie quickly abandoned the grand abundance that filled McBride Hall, and now she had made it her only mission in life to go and find her mother’s whereabouts. She prayed that after all this time, Sarah was still alive.

How could her mother possibly be happy in a place so desolate, away from all she had ever known? One week after she had sent the letter, Maddie sighed and wrung her small hands once more. As her carriage slowed and then pulled into a well-worn barn lot, a man in worn denim overalls, all wrinkled, with dry dark skin that appeared to be dusted in soot ash, stood up from a large cloth laid flat across the ground where he was hulling some pecans. The cloth had caught a huge mound of brown shells, and a small red bucket held the bounty, fresh meaty pecans.

“You must be Miss McBride,” the tall dark-skinned man greeted, as Madeleine stepped down out of the carriage. She wore a sensible traveling outfit, a dark navy gaberdine skirt and matching waistcoat which was sturdy and would hold up to much wear. The carriage driver, an employee of Ezra Evans, who expected his horse-drawn conveyance to return to the estate just as soon as it dropped her off, tossed down a large black flower-embroidered carpet bag. Maddie glanced at the simple traveling bag and in her mind flashed all the remaining lovely antiques she would no longer enjoy. She was thankful that all the help had been compensated before she had vacated the McBride Hall, the monies taken from harvest crop dividends. There was some money left over to help Madeleine and Sarah make their future.

“Good afternoon, yes, I am Madeleine McBride, I have a paper regarding my mother’s whereabouts that I found in my father’s things, and I am hoping to speak with a woman here,” Maddie looked down at the crumpled document in her hand, “named Hannah.” She shyly smiled and looked at the looming tobacco barn with its hanging hands of tied tobacco that hung precariously from the rough-hon wooden eaves. There was an attached outside rock-wall milking parlor. (I don’t see any cows, she thought.) Maddie smiled when startled upon finding a small little girl unexpectedly surrounding her huge skirt with her tiny arms giving a huge hug. “And who might you be, sweet girl?” She asked the frail child who greeted her with a willing but timid smile. The tall man, who had been working on the nuts as the carriage had arrived, answered for her. “Why she’s little Charlotte, Miss, and I am Sugar Dog. Sugar Dog Paxton, they call me.” He picked up the little red bucket of hulled nuts and handed them over to Charlotte. “Go with her, follow her up to the Big House, and she will take you to Miz Hannah. I’m proud to have met you, ma’am,” he spoke as he knelt down to what Madeleine first perceived to be a loveless and forlorn child with big lost eyes and long snow-blonde hair. No telling what had happened for this child to end up here. She imagined she would soon be hearing all sorts of tragic stories about the people who had no one, no money and no place else to go except to come to live on this farm. “Now, you be careful, Lottie, don’t spill it. Take this batch to Miz Hannah and tell her I will bring another bucket full tonight.” “See you both at supper,” he smiled at both Madeleine and Charlotte, then, as the silent carriage driver turned about and headed back down the dreary chert road, Sugar Dog went back to his nut cracking task at hand.

Charlotte and Maddie silently walked up the road a bit from the barn lot. To the left, through a large patch of wild elderflower bushes, Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susan blooms, up a rather steep hill, stood a solemn white 2-story wooden house, with a shabby balcony and 4 tall posts. It could use some fresh paint and a few repairs. Its countenance held no cheer, no one had cared much for it in years. Even the earth around the old home was scraggly and unkempt. It looked a bit decrepit and forgotten, most likely haunted.

“Dear God, it’s the The House of Doom,” Maddie thought to herself and she giggled just a bit at what drudgery was soon to become her life, and the thought of this seemed to urge Madeleine to suddenly teeter a bit towards insanity. Maybe it was just exhaustion from all the loss and shock recently. At the sound of hearing Maddie’s soft, fearful laugh, quiet little Charlotte, with her thin, long, colorless white hair, smiled an impish smile and eerily commented, not as a question but as a matter of fact, “you didn’t bring much with you.”

“No,” Maddie replied. “There was nothing left but me.”

*~~~~~~~*~~~~~~~*

“Just put your bag over there by the stairs,” Hannah said in a rather stern voice as Madeleine and Charlotte walked slowly into the kitchen of the old house. She was slicing some fresh bread with her right hand as she gestured, pointing towards the carpet bag in Maddie’s right hand. Hannah was the kind of person who got a lot done, and liked to do things her way, without any sass. “Henry, come in here and take Miz McBride’s personals up to her room.” The old kitchen was warm and something delicious bubbled away atop a big cook stove.

Madeleine should have realized just how well this old farmhouse was run by simply noting the expediency of Henry’s long legs. He immediately “hopped-to-it” when commanded by domineering Hannah. He seemed to be afraid of her. Henry had been orphaned when he was 7 years old and had lived here doing just as Miz Hannah said going on 9 years now, Charlotte whispered to Maddie. Responding immediately, he was up the stairs with the bag in just a flash and it was when she turned around that Madeleine realized Hannah was standing on just one leg. Her left side was held up by an old wooden crutch, yet the middle-aged coffee-colored woman worked about her kitchen as if it were as ordinary as rain. Hannah noticed Madeleine trying her best not to stare at her missing leg and subsequent crutch. Hannah explained, “This? This is what my rotten old man did to me. He was choppin’ wood out back, and when I came up behind him in the yard, he threw that damn hatchet at me for sumthin’ I never did. He accused me of philandering’s’, but I never did. After I crawled up in my house, with that hatchet stuck still in my leg, I grabbed his pistol and I shot him dead. Wasn’t too long after that my leg festered; gangrene set in. It sho was a terrible thing, everyone said I wouldn’t make it, but I still can do what I needs to do.”

She continued. “I reckon you will learn to like it here, most of us does. There’s a wash bowl and fresh water from the creek in your room and a clean towel,” Hannah said. “You can go up there and rest for about an hour until supper is ready, if you want. Lottie can show you up.”

“Um, thank you, Hannah. I am sure we will get along fine,” Madeleine sort of stammered. She could not believe that Hannah had not uttered the simplest of welcomes, or mentioned her mother, not even once. Hannah had just stared and stared as though she was sizing Madeleine up. Madeleine had never met anyone with a briefer introduction, someone with so few manners. At first sight, Madeleine was scared of Hannah, but she couldn’t put a finger on why just yet.

A well-built set of sturdy wooden stairs were located just out the back door, you went up on the outside of the house, though the staircase and a 6- foot wide landing were still enclosed and had a tin roof over head. “You’re lucky, you get the best room,” sweet Charlotte explained to Maddie. “this is Rachel’s old room, but she doesn’t sleep here anymore. So now, it is yours.”

“It is a very nice room, Lottie. Is it alright if I call you Lottie?” I looked around, investigating the sparsely appointed bedroom, orienting myself for really the first time since my father had been killed. “Where is Miss Rachel now?”

Lottie never told me anymore about Rachel… A little stuffed handmade rag doll with yellow yarn hair lay against one of the pillows on what was to be my old iron bed. A nine-patch quilt made from all variety of colors covered the white sheets, as I smoothed the quilt with my hand, I reached to pick up the doll.

“That’s Amy. She is mine, but you look like you need some company so she can stay with you for a bit, she will sleep with you and keep you safe,” Lottie said to me. “Put your dirty clothes here (she indicated a handmade basket that sat in the corner by the door. Annie does up all the clothes and she will check your basket for the washing on Mondays. When it’s dry, she brings it all back and leaves it in your basket.”

“Oh, well that is nice of her,” I replied. “But I can take care of my own laundry, I don’t wish to be an imposition on anyone.”

“A impo-what?” That’s her job. Miz Hannah says we all must have a job. Idle hands are the devil’s playground, Miz Hannah says. My job is to go and fetch. I take lunch down to the barn or fields for the men while they are out working. I bring things like the nuts back to the house, go get some eggs, or help Miz Hannah in the kitchen sometimes when she needs me. We all have a job. Old Annie’s is washing up dirty clothes.” Lottie dismissed me as she eased quietly out the door, shutting it behind her. I breathed in some air, determined to do the best I could with what life was now offering me, at least until I could find my mother. A roof over my head, food, and space away from the home and life that I had previously loved. I lay my head down on the pillow upstairs in that still room and instantly fell asleep. As I slept, unbeknownst to me, someone rocked in the rocking chair that sat in the corner of the small room, back and forth, keeping watch over me.

“Supperti-i-i-ime!” Lottie hollered from downstairs. My eyes immediately jolted, opening wide as I quickly tried to remember where I was. I was lying in my “new” bed, in my “new” room, here on the County Poor House Farm, I recalled through my disorientation, and my mind began to rehash my first brief moments here, when I suddenly realized there was someone there with me in my room. Sitting in a small rocking chair by the window, a beautiful, dark-haired girl with very pale skin, she was just a few years younger than my own 25. She stared right at me, her eyes seemed trouble, haunted, even. “Hello,” I said to her. “I am Maddie, I just got here a bit ago. What’s your name? Are you Rachel?” A startled look crossed her face and as I turned to put my feet onto the poplar hardwood floor, a small cry emitted from this young woman, and then, she vanished. Into thin air, she completely disappeared, leaving behind the faint scent of lavender.

Well, blame that on being somewhere unfamiliar, with losing my home so tragically less than three weeks ago, with the very fact that I was destined to live here in this destitute home, for at least a while until I could figure out a way to get back on stable financial feet, and make a home for myself and my mother. This was temporary, I wouldn’t be staying here forever. I surely was exhausted as my trance-nap had just proven, and now I had just imagined a pleasant-smelling apparition in my room…Probably because the last words I had heard before I fell asleep was Lottie mysteriously saying that Miss Rachel no longer needed my room with no clue whatsoever as to why. That HAD to be it, I wasn’t seeing things, I was just imagining them. The sweet smell of lavender must have filtered in through the open window.

I splashed a bit of cold water over my face, tried to comb my hair smooth, then I headed down the stairs to the dining area. A very long home-made bench style table filled a room, and already there were people sitting there waiting to eat. “Come on in here and find a seat,” Hannah said.

“Lawd, girl, you look like you done gone and seen a ghost! So pale! Are you alright?” Sugar Dog inquired as I made it down to the dinner table.

“She’s fine,” Hannah brusquely replied from the head of the table. “Pass some of these green beans and those good fried apples down to her”. “The girl needs to eat.” “David, you go run out to the spring house and get Madeleine some of that good moss lemonade I made”.

I slowly sat down, taking it all in. As the sliced bread made its way around the table after we all had hefty servings of fresh-grown vegetables piled on our plates, each so-called “inmate” of the County Poor House began to introduce themselves as they took their bread from a round chipped plate.

“I got your letter, child,” Hannah says. Just like that, the friendly faces gathered around the long table suddenly became silenced, they seemed distant, distracted as if they existed in some other world. They didn’t want to hear about Miss Sarah. “I can tell you some about Miss Sarah,” she continued, “but you ain’t gonna like what there is to tell”.

“I’m sorry to share with you at dinner time such fretful news, but you’re a grown woman, and well, child, the truth is that your sweet mamma was beaten and raped by an escaped convict, name was Stephen Crory, who was running and hiding up here in these woods years ago. The law and some other men caught him, hung him high in an old tree near the top lookout on Crawly Ridge. He had murdered another man, and was on the run, and had been living in a cave down by the creek. Your mother made the mistake of wandering off on her own one day, though I told her more than once not to, she was gathering some wildflowers for our table when that bastard Crory found her.”

“Did, tell me, did she die?” Maddie hesitantly inquired. She held her breath.

“Poor thing woulda been better iffn she had,” Sugar Dog spoke.

“Then, she IS alive? You’re saying she is still alive?” Maddie was incredulous at the news. “Where is she?” Maddie stood quickly beside the table, anxious to reunite with her long-lost mother.

“Now, hold on, sit back down, Miz Madeleine,” Hannah calmed her. “There is more you need to know.”

“But, I want to SEE her!” Maddie passionately insisted.

“You will, you will, child.” Hannah patted Madeleine’s soft warm hand with her icy cold one, in an attempt to console Maddie’s disappointment. “Your mamma,” she continued, “is not the lady you remember, miss. She has never really recovered from her woes. Being abandoned by your father, a fine lady such as her hidden away in these haunted dark woods with strangers. Miss Sarah was wild with despair over this tragedy, far before she was later attacked.” “Doc Wakefield (oh, he drives through about twice a year to check on us down here,” Hannah said while air tapping at her missing leg), “says all that shock and fear she endured brings the fits she suffers from today.”

“Miz Hannah says Miz Sarah’s got the Devil in her,” Lottie giggled, then shyly smiled, as she lifted up the top piece of bread, then took out from under it another slice that she deemed more suitable and laid it onto her plate, then she passed the bread on to a couple of boys who looked to be about 12.

“Hush, Lottie,” Hannah interrupted.

“I will take you to see her in the morning, Miz Madeleine,” Sugar Dog vowed.

The introductions continued. “I’m Henry, I’m 12. Me and David are twins.”
Madeleine saw great sorrow in their young faces. “Miz Hannah wants us to gather up wood for the fireplaces, kindling, and take out the ashes, and I run back and forth from the hands, to the field workers, to the house. And I have a pet fox named Wiley and …”

“Okay, that’s enough for now, Henry,” Hannah laughed. She was creepy and a bit harsh, but still, she could smile, I noted.

Next was David. “You won’t see me and Henry much, usually just at supper time, for every day we apprentice down at the blacksmith shop in the little community over the ridge.” He pointed past where the barnyard stood. I nodded an acknowledgment towards both of the twins, who, coincidentally, smelled like smoke. They had the greenest eyes, those two.

A blacksmith shop? Maddie hadn’t seen a blacksmith shop as she had driven through the nearest settlement where there was general store which also served as the post office. She also had never seen paler skin on human beings, with unruly shocks of Irish red hair. These orphaned boys both could use some time out playing in the sunshine, instead of hard hours laboring inside the smithy’s. Some heartier meals wouldn’t hurt the thin twins, either, Maddie thought.

Next, a yellow-skinned sickly woman sat at the side end, next to Hannah. She had very little food on her plate and passed on the bread. “My constitution can’t handle much food,” she told us. “I am Annie, I came here because my man died when he was cutting down trees and I didn’t have any family living near here. It’s not fancy as I suppose you are used to, but it’s alright… I couldn’t work a regular sort of job due to my constant stomach troubles, they ain’t much to do for a woman with no schooling anyway, so the county folks brought me out here. I take care of the launderin’.” When she spoke, Annie gasped each of her words out, as if each one might be her final breath. She was weak and she was at death’s door.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Annie.” If we could find some milk thistle near here or slippery elm nearby, maybe we could make a tonic from these that might help you feel better”.

“Slippery elm, is it?” Hannah muttered as she cut her eyes quickly toward Maddie. “And what do YOU know about slippery elm and milk thistle?” “You’re not a bit witchy, are you, Madeleine?”

“Oh, no! I used to spend a lot of reading an old Medical encyclopedia in my father’s library,” Maddie replied. “Father had a small pharmacy at home. I sometimes helped him as he created remedies for his patients.”

“That is very interesting, sho is,” Hannah allowed. I could see she was already formulating in her mind what my jobs would be. She didn’t like me.

On the opposite side of the rustic table sat David who had returned with a large glass of the chilled lemony moss lemonade just for me.

Sugar Dog beckoned for me to come and sit on that side of the table by him, so I did. “David, here, he is learning to be carpenter when he is not at the blacksmith’s. He likes building and wood working of all sorts. I am teaching him all that I know, which ain’t much,” Sugar Dog laughed.

“Thank you for the lemonade, David,” I greeted.

I had never dreamed that being “sentenced to the Poor House”, as it were, would be filled with so many people with no family or means or that there would be such an abundance of food on their impoverished table, but from perusing the kitchen shelves and items hanging from the ceiling, I could see that they dried what they could, canned some and thus were able to preserve all matter of edibles. A few stories were told around the table about that long day of happenings and troubles, seems the menfolk were quite worried about the lack of rain.

“We have a huge patch of pumpkins that we take and sell down by the store but if it doesn’t hurry and rain, they are gonna be puny and too dry inside!” spoke Peter who was about 80. He resembled a Gothic Father Christmas with his big old belly and long white beard and wonky glass eye. Peter sat away from the table, more comfortable in his own larger chair away from the rest with a small table beside to put his drink and plate on. “The kids count on us for their jack-o-lanterns,” he stated.

“Almost pumpkin pie time!” laughed David. Despite my utter exhaustion, my first night and first meal turned out to be mildly pleasant amidst strangers who seemed a little bit familiar by the meal’s end. And even though I felt myself warming to this makeshift spooky little backwoods family, not once did I make mention of my earlier upstairs vision. I didn’t want them to think I was crazy or something.

Night darkness descended, and everyone went their own way to their gloomy little bedrooms throughout the house. Sugar Dog kept his bedroom in the milk shed located behind the old barn and he left the table first. When Maddie questioned the remaining diners, no one seemed sure why Mr, Paxton was known as Sugar Dog. Lottie took Maddie by the hand and led her up the stairs. “Don’t be worrying none, you have the softest feather bed.” I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

Slept came immediately. But later, in the wee still hours after midnight, Madeleine’s eyes flew open as she was jolted from sleep. A piercing scream had come from outside, she supposed it must be a wild cat, maybe a panther or bob cat.

“Come on, I will show you.” Little Charlotte had heard the terrifying noise and rushed up to Maddie’s room, in case she was frightened. She reached out once more for Maddie’s hand. After slipping on her shoes and a crocheted warm shawl, Maddie and Lottie tip-toed together down the outside stairs.

Once they stepped off the wooden landing, Lottie turned and held her pointy finger to her lips. “Shhhhh!” Striking a match, Lottie lit a metal lantern, and the two together stepped lightly down the hill, walking back towards the barn.

Eerie was the chilling, golden full moon that night, though clouds edged its light with lacy dots in the shades of darkness. An underground stream could be heard as it trickled through one side of the old barn. Inside were stalls that held 2 pigs, a work mule for the garden and haying, and an old nag of a horse that was used for the only farm buckboard wagon they owned.

“This here is Buck,” Lottie gestured towards the reddish-brown horse. “He got some new shoes today, didn’t ya, Buck? And this old mule here, this is stubborn Jack, watch out for him, he is a kicker.” She continued to whisper about the mule, but I had tuned out her tiny voice. As I had been reaching out to pet the horse, my eyes discerned an oddly shaped box against the far back wall of the barn.

“Lottie, what IS that?” Before I could finish my question, we suddenly heard a wild animal mewling from inside the box. It sounded like it had been hurt. I began to walk towards the wretched sound, but Lottie held tightly to my arm and sleeve.

Lottie wailed, “No, Maddie, don’t! We shouldn’t have come; this is a bad time! Sometimes it’s not so bad, we gotta go. I’m sorry! Sugar Dog is gonna keeel me!! We have to go, NOW!” and with this, Lottie turned and flew out of the barn, running as fast as she could back towards the big house, taking our only lantern with her. Now, with clouds passing over the moon, only the slightest light illuminated my destination, I could barely see my hands in front of my face.

I reasoned, “why would Sugar Dog keep a hurt animal in a pen without seeing to it?” I planned to give him a strong talking to first thing in the morning. This seemed inhuman to let a creature suffer so. For now, I wondered if there was anything that I could do to help the tortured animal in its misery.

As I slowly made my way nearer to the tall box, a horrific foul stench filled my nostrils, bringing the waste odors of urine or worse. I was almost right beside the large container when I spied what looked to be Lottie’s little rag doll, lying forgotten on the barn’s dirt floor, with its yellow yarn hair all mussed in the muck. Perhaps Lottie had brought it to comfort whatever hurt creature suffered inside?

I bent to retrieve the doll, intending to return it back to the box, but when I raised my body up, holding the doll, suddenly, a piece of hard metal struck a piercing blow through my unsuspecting heart. In horrific disbelief, I was stunned as my head turned up towards that wooden cage to look into wild, frenetic eyes. Dear God in heaven, they were the beautiful violet and quite dead eyes of my Mother, trapped in hell on earth in this damning cage.

I crumbled to the dirt. My poor Mother and I were at last reunited. I cried out to her one last time as I expired. I would never rescue her.

~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~

As the Full Moon tumbled quietly behind the obsidian trees, the sun cheerfully arose on another crisp October morn. It was Sugar Dog who found my body after having his breakfast at the big house. He and Hannah had remarked over coffee how I needed the extra sleep, after my previous day’s journey when I didn’t come down and join them.

He gave a loud shout when he walked into the barn. Soon, everyone made their way down to the old tobacco barn. Possessing my new form, I had now become what my mother used to call a “haint”. I sat on the edge of the hayloft, with my ghostly feet dangling back and forth, and I watched as all the other apparitions tried to figure out what had happened in the night while they were “sleeping”. The other lifeless inmates had walked down to witness the death scene of their latest “family” member who now would remain trapped here on this land forever, just like all of them, at the County Poor House farm, hidden away for eternity in the dark, silent backwoods of Tennessee.

“I guess Maddie couldn’t wait for me to bring her down here, she must have somehow stolen her way down to the barn in the night to find her mamma.” Sugar Dog had suspicions about how Miz Madeleine had made her way down to the barn by herself and he quickly glanced over at Charlotte, but little Lottie was busy pretending to talk and giggle with Buck. “Miz Sarah must have been waiting for someone to come. Only this time, instead of harming herself as she had previously done many a time, she instead volleyed her fury at Madeleine. She must have found her weapon lying forgotten on the barn floor. Sarah had easily stabbed Maddie with one of the horseshoe nails. Its long, sharp, hand-forged shank must have fallen within her reach, too near the protective pen meant to keep her from harming herself or others, when the farrier had come to put new shoes on the horse named Buck yesterday.”

“Oh, Sarah, how lonely you must be, to murder your own daughter.” Sugar Dog shook his head in pity as he handed, from his pocket, to Sarah a biscuit he had brought from the kitchen. It had just a little bit of honey spread inside. She was sitting in lotus position inside the wooden box which had been her sanity’s undoing. Sarah reached for the fresh baked morsel being offered, took a bite, then, while rocking back and forth a little, she smiled.

~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~

Most of this story is based on true facts and a real place. I made up the tale, but the characters are based on names and descriptions of real souls who lived and were buried here and were mostly forgotten in this southern holler. “Holler” is dialect for “hollow,” which perfectly describes the valleys between hills or mountains.

One hundred and eighty-seven years have now passed since this partly fictional story took place (we now know that our sweet Sarah was afflicted with what we now call PTSD and epilepsy, which was a disease sadly undiagnosed until the year 1929). Sarah suffered from seizures, anxiety, bit her tongue, she would fall suddenly or her limbs would jerk, she reached out to hurt others, she lost consciousness sometimes and suffered from incontinence and confusion, aka “The Devil’s in her”, as Charlotte put it. She was not crazy when she had arrived at the Poor House, but the desecration and abandonment and lack of light over the years had entirely squelched her soul. They just didn’t know what was “ailing” her in that time period. The County Poor House Farm really existed with indigent residents, orphans, the undiagnosed sick and a farm “warden” overseer up until the 1950’s.

On the land that once was the County Poor House Farm, there remains today a “white” burial ground located at the top of the Ridge above the old house where only the white folks rest, and past the barn and on up into the next field on the hill where I now reside,
the “black” cemetery is mostly consumed by overgrown brush beneath looming cedar trees. There are rocks that serve as head and foot stones there. Sugar Dog has been seen on more than one occasion as he walks by in his overalls, headed down the lane that leads to the underground spring. He is quite tall. The shabby old house where they all lived eventually burned down and cheap little shanty houses were built as replacement dwellings for the inmates.

If you sit quietly on a chilly October evening after a cold rain, you might sometime still hear the creaks and splashes of an old carriage as it makes its way down the old chert road through the holler and towards the old tobacco barn that stands in the bend down on Poor House County Farm.

THE END