01 Feb My Father’s Strange Farm
I had to go back. It had been playing on my mind for the better part of three decades. I had tried to forget most of my time there, on the farm. They were mostly horrible memories, but bits and pieces of those horrible memories kept finding their way back to me as I grew older, and they left behind a question I needed answered.
Could such terrible things exist in this world?
I pulled into the dirt driveway that lead to the house that had long since been abandoned. The two-story farmhouse sat on a small hill, dark and wistful. As I approached up the winding dirt driveway, I could see the dirty rotting wood and broken shutters hanging open from dark windows.
That had been my home in the 1980’s. I grew up there. I had left when I was nine.
It was a small farm–only one corn field. Small enough that my father could work it alone with some leased machinery. Though the land was small, he made a good amount of money from it. The farm was different. Strange.
“The land’s ripe for growing,” Dad had said to me once. He pulled a scarecrow from the equipment shed that sat next to the cornfield. There were four scarecrows, and Dad would set them up just after the field was sowed in growing season. They would always go up in a diamond pattern. First one he would hammer in at the north end of the field, second one to the west end, third one to the east end, and fourth one to the south end. I had always wondered why he didn’t hammer in the west end scarecrow last; it was closest to the house. But things had their order on that farm.
“You see,” Dad said. “It’s special land. Real special. Yields are off the charts for the size of the field. Stop chucking that football about and listen up, Timmy.”
I did what he said and followed behind him closely as he dragged the scarecrow to the south end of the field. The butt of the scarecrow’s stake dragged through the dirt, kicking up dust. I listened carefully to Dad. When he told you something, he only spoke kindly once. If he had to tell you twice. . .
“This is going to be your farm one day,” Dad said. He drove the scarecrow’s stake into the ground. “So, soon, not this harvest season but maybe the next, I’m going to start teaching you of how things work ‘round here. Little by little.”
He then hammered the top of the stake that ran up the back of the scarecrow like a spine. I flinched at each of the four cracking shots. When he was done, he wiped the sweat off his brow and turned to me, his brooding figure silhouetted by the low afternoon sun.
“This land’s good, Timmy. Real good,” he smiled, with a twinge of a wild look in his eye. “You just need the right fertilizer.”
With that, he started back towards the house.
I stood there for a moment, staring up at the scarecrow, its featureless straw face framed by a hood fashioned out of a ragged burlap sack. Stray strands of straw poking from its head fluttered in the gentle breeze. Something in my stomach churned over.
I never did like those things.
I popped the trunk of my rental car, pulled out a shovel, then closed the trunk again. I looked out over the field. It was barren now; the soil untouched for decades. The equipment shed was far to my right, on the east side of the field. It was as decrepit as the house. The roof had partially caved in and the wall planks were warped in places. An iron chain fastened by two heavy-duty padlocks locked the doors. I swallowed hard.
I prayed they were not in there.
I started toward the farmhouse. The pylons were still out.
On afternoons in the growing season, when the scarecrows were in the field and just as the sun turned orange and started its descent to the horizon, Dad would hammer in 10 four-foot wooden pylons around the house, and then take them down first thing in the morning. Each pylon had carvings on them; strange symbols that looked similar to what you would see on a totem pole.
“What are those?” I had asked once.
“I’ll tell you one day. You’re not ready to know, yet.”
When the pylons and scarecrows were out, Dad had a strict rule: I had to come inside when the bottom of the sun touched the horizon.
One afternoon I had spent too long playing outside.
The sun was a big orange semi-circle peeking over the horizon line, but I did not care that day. I was having too much fun and was feeling a tad rebellious. So, I played.
I was chucking Hail Mary passes to myself down the driveway. In my head, I was the star QB of my favorite team, the New England Patriots. I always wanted to be like Dan Marino, and even though he was a Dolphin player and a division rival, he was still my favorite player. The high-flying, gunslinging star QB that could chuck the ball 80 yards through the air. Yeah, that was me in my dreams. But reality was I never had the talent for the game, unfortunately. But that afternoon–for a short while, with the rambunctious imagination of a nine-year-old–I was king.
I heaved the ball in the air and took off underneath it. “Timmy Brentwood throws the pass high and long!” I shouted. I watched the wobbly spiral descend, and at full sprint, I stuck out my hands, bobbled the ball, then caught it.
“He’s got it! He’s at the ten. . . the five. . . touchdown Patriots!” I spiked the ball into the dirt. “Timothy Brentwood throws the last-second winning touchdown pass in the Superbowl! The greatest quarterback to ever-”
“Timmy,” my father said sternly from the porch. Reality came crashing back. “What’s the rule? Inside before sundown. Get a move on.”
Anger suddenly burned at the base of my chest. He was always ordering me around. I was always doing what he wanted. Always had to listen to him. He never listened to me. I was always meek and good and followed his orders. I never got what I wanted, so he could get screwed as far as I was concerned. Just this once, I wanted to play.
“No, I don’t want to,” I said, with all the misplaced confidence of a rebellious child. “I want to keep playing.”
Dad stomped down the porch steps with purpose. He spoke through gritted teeth, his veins and tendons bulging from his neck. “If I have to go out there and get you, boy. . .”
My heart froze. The confidence and anger melted away as quickly as it came. I was only scared, now.
I started back to the house, running past the pylons that Dad had erected earlier in the afternoon. At the base of the porch steps, he grabbed me by my wrist and hauled me up them without my feet touching the wood. He put me back down on the porch and grasped my shoulders tightly. He dropped his face to mine, his piercing gaze flaring with a ferocious intensity.
“You listen to me when I tell you to do something, boy!”
Then I got a hard clip over the ear. My ear went numb and rung with a high-pitched whirr. My eyes swelled with tears. I looked at him stunned. It was not the first time I had been hit, but it was the first time I had been hit over the head.
“Now go to bed, right now! Without supper!”
Without saying anything I ran inside, up the steps, slammed my door and curled under the covers. I buried my face into the pillow, and only then did I sob.
I walked past the pylons that had remained for all these years. Some still stood, others had toppled over. They were old now; blackened with mold and weathered, the wood split and the carvings faded.
I walked up the porch steps that moaned their old age. For a moment I stood at the front door, tears stinging the back of my eyes. It was not the house I had come back for. It was what was in the field I needed to see, but it was the home I wanted to see, because through the bad memories, there was still some good.
The hinges whined as I pushed the door open. The house was as I remembered, untouched from that last dreadful night I spent here all those years ago–the night we had to flee.
Only now, the home was caked with dust and mold. Cobwebs had collected in the corners. The wallpaper had peeled in large sheets off the wall. All these artifacts of neglect and abandonment.
The TV was still there, greyed with thick dust. Tears streamed down my face as I stood in the living room, the furniture standing around me like ruins.
Every Sunday morning we would sit together there. I got to watch Looney Tunes on the TV as Dad would sit in his recliner reading the paper or a book, and Mom would make us her famous pancakes. No-one could or ever will make them like Mom could. They were thick and fluffy, served with a generous drenching of maple syrup. If we were especially lucky, she would add chocolate chips to the batter and serve with a dollop of ice-cream. That was the best.
When she was done cooking, she would come through from the kitchen with two plates stacked high with pancakes. She would give one to Dad with a kiss, and one to me, with my own peck on the cheek. Then she would get her plate and join us in the living room. I would cuddle up next to her on the sofa, and we would sit together to enjoy her pancakes and watch cartoons.
It was the one time during the week that everything did not feel so cold. The one time Dad did not feel so distant. The one time I was not scared of him. The one time he would actually have a conversation with Mom and me, instead of talking in short and simple bursts or barking out orders.
The one time we were a real family.
I wiped my tears with my sleeve and walked outside, leaving the home behind for the last time. I waded out into the field, the soil hard beneath my boots. I could feel the field’s spirit. With some satisfaction, I felt it was weak.
Dad had called it special. I would call it evil.
The night Dad had sent me to bed with a clip over the ear and no supper, Mom had come up with some soup and a glass of soda. She handed it to me with a kiss on the forehead.
“A mother can’t let her child go hungry,” she said. “It goes against all my nature.”
“I know he’s rough, Timmy, but try not to get too mad at him. He worries for you, that’s all.”
“I don’t care. I hate him.”
She sighed and looked away, then ruffled my hair and gave me a smile. “He does what he can to provide. Just leave the bowl and glass on the nightstand, I’ll come in later and take it to the kitchen,” she got up and walked to the door, pausing to say: “I love you.”
“Love you too, Mommy,” I said. And she left the room.
Later in the night I had awoken suddenly. I sat bolt upright.
I had left it outside that afternoon. It was my only ball, and it was just sitting out there, plain as day down the driveway. If one of the older kids–the neighbors from a few miles down the road–saw it the next morning, they would surely steal it, if they had not already. And if they stole it, Dad would not buy me another. I could already hear his lecture in my head.
“Let it be a lesson learned. If you don’t take care of your things, they won’t take care of you,” he would always say.
I creeped to my door, eased it opened, and peeked around the corner to my parent’s room down the hall. The door was shut, and the house dark and quiet.
I crept down the stairs and tiptoed to the kitchen, where Dad kept the front door keys in one of the drawers. I grabbed them, and then, dipping in and out of the moonlight that flooded through the windows, I tiptoed to the front door.
I eased back the dead bolts as slowly and quietly as I could. They drew back with a faint click. I waited nervously after each one clicked back, listening for my parent’s door to fly open with my father’s heavy footsteps tumbling out like a madman. But they never came.
I opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. My ball sat 15 yards away, looking lonely in the driveway. I was prepared to make a mad dash for it. Run over, pick it up, run back, lock the doors, sneak back upstairs, and go to bed–Dad would be none the wiser. But before I could take off down the driveway, I was distracted by a rustling noise coming from the cornfield, to my left. The cornstalks were about six-foot by then, and shining a pale green under the moonlight.
A man’s muffled scream came from the corn.
My heart leaped. The corn was restless. The stalks rustled back and forth in the center of the field, and then came another muffled scream. I froze, and my knees became watery. The scarecrows. . . They were not in their usual spots. They were close together, in the center of the corn field, their hooded heads poking out over the top of the stalks.
And they were moving.
The corn rustled violently as did the scarecrows. They moved about wildly, as if they were wrestling with something.
Another muffled scream.
I watched on wide-eyed and frozen with terror as the scarecrows fought with something among the cornstalks. I thought that this was surely a bad dream. A terrible dream. A nightmare. And, in a sense, it was a nightmare, just not the kind you can wake up from.
The muffled scream cut off abruptly. The scarecrows froze for a moment, their hoods ruffling gently in the breeze. They craned their heads, and their straw faces–featureless but somehow ingrained with hatred–settled on me. I was seeing something I should not be seeing. A shiver trickled down my spine.
Somewhere in the distance, a crow called.
I was just about to scream when a hand grasped the back of my pajama collar and pulled me backwards into the house. I was flung to the ground by Dad. He stepped around me and slammed the door shut, then locked the two deadbolts. They drew shut with an emphatic shunk.
I waited for Dad to turn around with a look of rage, but what I saw scared me worse. He had looked at me, not with rage, but terror. It was the first time I had seen him scared, and I would see him this scared only once more, just a few weeks later.
I started to cry. Seeing him scared had scared me more than his rage ever could have.
“It’s okay,” he said shakily. “You’re okay, Timmy.” He bent down and scooped me up. He carried me to my room as I cried, and he tucked me into bed, saying one thing repeatedly:
“You’re okay, Timmy. You’re okay.”
A murder of crows flew overhead, moving strangely silent. I stood in the middle of the field. The once rich soil now sick. Up close I could see it had taken on a greyish hue. And there was something else, too. It was rumbling slightly, as if it were hungry.
I readied my shovel and paused. I asked myself: Do I really want to do this? What purpose did it serve? What would it change? Nothing. So why had I come back?
Closure–that was why. I could not move on if I did not have closure, nor could I heal. The nightmares would continue, the anxiety would persist, and my soul would continue to whittle and seep from wounds that wondering fingers of doubt kept prodding open. I had to see if it was all real. I could not let questions linger. Could such horror exist in this world, or were my memories simply warped and exaggerated with time?
So, did I want to do this? Yes. The answer was always yes. I should have come back years ago. Maybe then I would not have suffered so long. Closure–that is what I needed.
I pierced the soil with my shovel.
My door had burst open in the middle of the night. Dad was in the doorway, a rifle slung over his shoulder.
“We need to go,” he said.
I sat up groggily. “What?”
“We need to go,” he pulled me out from under the blanket.
“What’s going on, Dad?”
“We need to go.”
He pulled me along at his side as we rushed down the stairs. His deep wrinkles and tanned skin, his strong jaw and sunken eyes, his pointed nose and thin lips, all twisted in an expression of terror. Terror like what had plastered his face the night he had caught me outside after dark. . . only worse.
I started to cry. “Dad, where is Mom?”
“I thought I did everything right,” he said absently. “I don’t know what I did wrong. The pylons maybe?”
The front door was already hanging open when he dragged me through it. Outside, the corn was restless again.
“I don’t know what I did wrong,” Dad said. “I don’t know how I didn’t hear them come in.”
Dad dragged me to the pick-up truck in the driveway. A woman’s muffled screams came from the corn. I looked over my shoulder toward the field to see the hooded heads bobbing around wildly again.
“Dad, where’s Mom?” I said with increasing urgency.
“I thought I did everything right. I don’t know why it went wrong,” he opened the pick-up’s passenger door and threw me inside.
“Dad, where is Mom!” I screamed. He shut the door in my face.
He walked around the front of the pick-up, and for a moment he paused to look back at field and the scarecrows. The shotgun trembled in his hands. For what it is worth, I think he would have tried to save her if it was not for me.
He continued around the car and climbed into the front seat. He fumbled with the keys in his trembling hands before inserting and turning them. The engine rumbled to life.
“Dad! Tell me! Where’s Mom!”
He reversed suddenly, swinging the car around so the front end pointed down the driveway, away from the house. He slammed the stick into first gear and took off with a lurch. The dirt clattered the underneath of the truck as we went.
“Where’s mom!” I cried shrilly.
He began to sob. “I’m sorry! I don’t know what I did! I thought I did everything right! I’m sorry Tim. I’m sorry, Sarah. Oh god, Sarah, I’m so sorry!”
I cowered back into my seat, feeling the car bounce over the bumpy road as we fled. My father cried, and so did I as we drove off into the night, leaving the farm, and Mom, behind.
I tossed aside the first clump of soil. Underneath the topsoil the dirt was grey and pale as bone. I continued to dig, tossing the soil in a heap to the side, where it trembled subtly.
Then I hit something with a hollow thud.
I threw away the shovel and got to my knees. I reached into the hole and brushed aside the dirt. I uncovered what I expected, yet feared at the same time.
A human skull.
I plucked it from the dirt and held it up with shaking hands. The hollow eye sockets stared vacantly back at me. I put it aside and reached into the hole again. I clawed at the dirt frantically with my bare hands.
There were more bones. Skulls. Hands. Femurs.
I pawed and pawed at the dirt. I dug until my fingernails were torn clean off.
It was true. It was all true. There is evil in this world. My memories had not lied. I fell back on my ass, exhausted, terrified, despaired. A pile had formed around me.
So many skulls. So many bones.
All from the souls that had fed the soil.