Description: In the 1930s, the undead came to rural Ohio. Decades later, one man lives with the memories.
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“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?”
It is odd how an innocent question like that can bring back such horrible memories; and even odder in this case, since the question came from none other than Lisa, my little great granddaughter.
Today is Halloween, and Lisa’s mother, Emily, brought her over to visit her sole surviving great grandparent before an evening of trick-or-treating. Lisa was wearing one of those plastic Halloween costumes that parents nowadays buy for their kids at Walmart or Target. This particular one looked like a cartoon ghost character that I have seen on television over the years.
“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?” Lisa was standing in my living room, unable to contain her self-delight over her Halloween disguise. She was holding a trick-or-treat bag that bore the image of a typical Halloween cliché: a witch flying on a broomstick, silhouetted against an oversized full moon. I had just dropped two Snickers bars into her bag—her first of many before the end of the evening, no doubt. Lisa was filled with energy even without all that sugar.
“Tell me what’s the scariest thing you ever saw.” She repeated. “Tell me, pleeeease! You always tell good stories, Gramps.” She stamped her foot once on my living room carpet.
I didn’t answer her right away, because the images that stirred as I considered the question made me lose my breath for a few seconds. Then I struggled to think of a suitable response. My answer would be a lie, of course. Not for a million dollars would I tell my great granddaughter the truth.
“Well, once this scary little ghost came into my living room.” I said, recovering myself. “And I’ve never seen anything scarier than her.” I pulled Lisa gently onto my lap and she began giggling. She is only eight years old, and still light enough so that her weight doesn’t hurt my knees—even though my arthritis has gotten quite bad in recent years.
“Lisa, say thank you for the candy your great grandfather gave you.” Emily said. Lisa responded with an enthusiast thank you and more laughter, her voice muffled by the plastic mask that came with the discount store Halloween costume.
“Will you be alright here by yourself tonight, Grandpa?” Emily asked. Emily is now what—thirty-six?—and it doesn’t seem like so many years since her own mother used to bring her here to visit me, and she would be the one sitting on my knee. (Or I should say visit us—as that was back when my wife Elsie was still alive.)
“I’ll be fine, dear. Don’t you worry,” I said. “Just take this little girl out trick-or-treating before she blows a gasket. And be safe, the both of you.”
They visited for few more minutes, and then bid me farewell. As they were walking out, Emily’s husband Todd called on her cell phone, and made arrangements to meet them for a quick dinner before taking Lisa out trick-or-treating. Emily invited me to accompany them but I declined. I knew that I would be an imposition; and anyway, I suddenly found myself in a thinking mood—not a talking mood. So I waved goodbye to them from my front porch; and they both waved back at me from the front seat of Emily’s SUV.
And then I was left alone with my own thoughts. From my front porch I could survey the jack-o-lanterns and cardboard skeletons that adorned the houses across the street. The afternoon sun was fading. In a few hours, an army of imposters would descend on the neighborhood: goblins, witches, and more ghosts like my little Lisa.
(“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?)
Every life has its dreadful episodes, its junctions with stark, naked fear; and mine is no exception. I have been profoundly frightened on a handful of occasions. I was in the war—the big one in Europe; and I had several close calls there. But those involved the simple fear of death. And when you cheat death, the feeling afterward is more often relief than dread. That was close, you tell yourself, but I made it out alive. And after you have put the memory sufficiently far behind you, it even makes you feel lucky to be alive—or blessed—depending on your view of the world.
Once, though, I cheated death in another way—and perhaps I cheated something even worse than death. I escaped; but rather than relief, I am left with a memory that still causes me to wake up screaming from time to time—more than seventy years later.
Not that it is always with me. For years at a stretch, it leaves me alone. But then something—usually something casual and insignificant—drudges it up. And then I’m back there again—just like tonight.
I probably couldn’t tell you much about a conversation I had last week, but I can remember the summer of 1932 like it was yesterday. I was eleven years old that year. I remember the Depression, of course. My family was poor—but everyone seemed to be poor then. We lived on a small farm about thirty miles east of Cincinnati, Ohio. All in all it wasn’t a bad life.
The summer began much like any other for me. When there wasn’t work to be done, I went fishing in nearby brooks and ponds. Sometimes I borrowed my father’s twenty-two and went hunting. Our farm was hemmed in by scores of creeks, hundreds of open meadows, and thousands of acres of thick forest. These were my domains during the summer vacation months. I sometimes left the house at eight o’clock in the morning, and didn’t return until the fireflies came out.
Therefore, I was more than a little disappointed on the day my father told me to stay out of the woods. He called me aside one afternoon in July when he was working in the corner of our barn that served as his workshop area. The barn doors were propped open, and he saw me running off with my fishing pole and wicker creel.
I stopped dead in my tracks. It was a perfect summer day, and I had bass fishing on my mind. My father’s voice hit me like a bucketful of cold water. What chore had I forgotten to perform? Or what new chore could he possibly come up with?
“Yes sir?” I called back.
He laid the sickle he had been sharpening on his workbench, and wiped the sweat from his forehead with a folded up handkerchief. He was a big, burly man with wide shoulders and a narrow waist. “Come here for a minute, son. We need to talk.”
I tried to conceal my chagrin as I trudged toward the barn, somehow knowing that my afternoon plans of fishing were going to be derailed. What did he have in mind? Weeding the vegetable garden behind the house? Or perhaps he wanted me to begin setting posts to fence in a new tract of pasture. He had casually mentioned something about that a few weeks ago.
I stepped into the hot, claustrophobic shade of the barn. The smells of manure and hay mingled with the oil and metal smells of my father’s workbench. He had taken a seat on the little stool that he kept beneath the workbench but seldom sat on. That suggested that this could be a long talk. He motioned for me to sit on a nearby bale of hay.
I had barely sat down before I felt Calvin Coolidge brush against my calves. Calvin Coolidge was a tomcat that had wandered onto the farm that spring. I kept the cat supplied with water and table scraps from the kitchen, and he had stayed around in return. I leaned down and gently stroked the top of Calvin’s head. His moist sandpaper tongue tickled my hand. I was pretty attached to that cat.
“Well, Paul,” my father began, scratching his beard as he talked. “You’re not going to like this. But you have to listen to me and promise that you’ll do what I tell you.”
I nodded silently. My father was not an overly harsh parent by the standards of the time, but he was a rigid disciplinarian in many areas. My compliance with his instructions was seldom a matter of doubt. But now he seemed to need reassurance that his own son would obey him.
“Do you promise that you’ll listen to me and do what I say?”
“Paul, we’re in the middle of summer; and I know that this is the time when you like to run loose in the woods. And there’s nothin’ wrong with that—provided you get your chores done first. But for a little while, you’re goin’ to have to stay within sight of the house.”
I usually didn’t dare question my father’s orders, but the enormity of this one compelled me to speak. “What did I— ”
“You didn’t do anything,” he said. “It’s not a punishment. It’s for your safety.”
Then neither of us spoke for a few seconds as my father looked up at the ceiling of the barn and exhaled loudly. I could tell that he wanted to think before he explained it to me—whatever it was.
“There was a jailbreak over in Lucasville last week, Paul. And some bad characters got loose. They don’t know for sure where the men are headin’, but it’s a good bet that they’ll head west, toward Cincinnati. And since we live close to the main road to the city, they could be passin’ through these parts. ”
I nodded. Lucasville was located in Scioto County, about thirty-five miles to the east. Once in a while, a potentially dangerous inmate would get loose, and there would be a heightened state of caution in the surrounding counties. But the escapees were usually recaptured within a day or two. And these situations had never before prompted my father to restrict me to the vicinity of the house.
“Some really bad guys?” I asked, hoping for more details.
“Yes.” My father said.
“Bad like John Dillinger?” I persisted. The famous criminal’s name had recently been in the newspapers and radio broadcasts a lot. This was the heyday of the flamboyant, big-time bank robbers. The thought of a bad egg like Dillinger—or perhaps Bonnie and Clyde—happening upon our farm frightened the bejesus out of me. Every boy living during that era must have been gripped by a dark fascination with those characters. I had sudden, involuntary images of my entire family being cut down with Tommie guns during a robbery of our home, or being taken hostage and shot one by one during a botched police standoff.
“Bad enough, I’d say.” It seemed that my father wasn’t going to elaborate. “But don’t you be worryin’ about that none. Just stay near the house ‘til I tell you different. Do we have a deal?”
My father was asking for a lot. But what choice did I have? He was my dad, after all. So I told him that I would do what he asked. And I told myself that this was going to be the worst summer of my life. But within a few weeks, I would vow never to go into the woods again, anyway.
It must have been the evening of the second or third day after my father issued his injunction that I saw Dad and my older brother David gathered out in front of our house with guns. Jake Metzger, our neighbor from across the road, was with them.
They were congregated at the place where our gravel driveway joined the road. It was impossible to miss them as I stepped out onto our front porch. They had set out empty wooden fruit crates to sit on, and a kerosene lantern burned at their feet, a bright glow in the summer night. They were sitting around and seemed to be chatting idly, but at the same time they were vigilant. As they talked, each one was pausing at intervals to look up both directions of the road, as if they were waiting for someone.
Their position enabled them to effectively set up a little roadblock between the two houses. I instantly connected their makeshift guard operation with my father’s talk about the jailbreak in Lucasville. This meant that the situation was now more serious: perhaps one of the escapees had been sighted in the area.
I was watching all this from our front porch. Calvin Coolidge had nestled up against me. I stroked the cat’s back and he purred like a little engine. The fading twilight was filled with a symphony of crickets.
I felt a little tenseness in my belly. I had to know more. I was going to get closer.
“Stay here,” I commanded Calvin Coolidge, giving the cat a final pat. “And I’ll bring ya some good table scraps later.” I arose and tiptoed down the front porch steps. Although Calvin Coolidge was doubtless ignorant of English, he stayed obediently behind.
As I was walking down the driveway, my feet crunching on the gravel, I overheard Jake say: “Maybe we ought to be watching around Hayworth.” He had to be referring to Hayworth Baptist Church, which was about a mile up the road.
“No,” said my father, shaking his head. “When it happens it ain’t like that. It would be someone that’s gone just recent.” I was now close enough to identify the gun laid across his lap. It was the twelve-gauge shotgun that usually resided in our downstairs hall closet.
I had no idea what the reference to Hayworth Baptist Church might have meant, and my father’s last remark was completely inscrutable. Jake was about to say something else to my father when he noticed my approach. “Howdy, Paul,” he said. His weapon was an old revolver of some sort. It was tucked into a holster, and laid beside him on the surface of the overturned crate that he occupied. “Thought you’d come down to help us, didya?” He was a tall, lanky man about the same age as my father.
“Naw, he won’t be no help,” my brother David blurted out. I felt a predictable and now familiar resentment well up in my belly. David was only four years older than me; but the difference between my eleven and his fifteen was vast. Whereas I was still on the short and scrawny side, he was already over six feet tall and had to shave with a razor practically everyday. And David never let me forget it. Not for a second.
He stood up, holding a twenty-two rifle with an air of self-importance. “I think Mom needs your help in the kitchen,” he said. “Better run along.”
My father glared at him. “That’ll be enough, David. You don’t have to turn everything into an excuse to beat down your brother.” Then to me: “Paul, I want you to go into the house.”
Since I hadn’t been invited in the first place, I had expected as much. But I had to have an explanation of what they were doing and why. Were the bad men heading towards our farm?
Then it occurred to me that sneaking up on our house at night wouldn’t have been all that difficult. A tumescent three quarters moon had come out, but the road was overhung with trees in both directions, so we were surrounded by darkness beyond the light of the kerosene lantern. I looked up the road in one direction and I couldn’t even make out its gravelly surface beyond a stone’s throw.
“Is this about the jailbreak?” I asked quickly.
“Paul, this isn’t the time,” my father said. “Now go inside.”
I could have sworn I heard my brother snicker just then, and I whirled suddenly in his direction. It was a futile, half-hearted gesture. I would never have dared to defy my father by actually taking a swing at David; and anyway, my brother would have smacked me aside like a kitten—if I was lucky.
But that little half-lunge was enough to arouse my father’s ire: “Paul. Now.”
“Yes sir.” I turned toward the house, resigned, already contemplating possible ways to take my revenge on David, who I knew had snickered at me. As I headed toward the lights of my mother’s kitchen, I heard more bits of conversations, and then I heard David laugh conspiratorially with the two grown men. What could they be talking about?
I had taken perhaps five steps in that direction when I heard Jake yell: “Who’s there? Identify yourself!”
I turned back and saw my father, Jake, and David all clambering to their feet. David knocked his fruit crate over and kicked it out of his way. He drew the twenty-two up to his chest. My father and Jake also had their guns ready. Jake fumbled his pistol out of its holster and held it aloft in front of him.
“I said who goes there?” Jake repeated loudly. The three of them were looking down the road, in the direction that I had surveyed just moments before. They were completely absorbed on whatever Jake had seen. They didn’t notice that I had stopped to watch them.
David leaned forward, straining to see into the darkness.
“There’s no one there,” he said.
“Yes there is,” Jake insisted. “Look.”
I ventured closer to the road, where I could join the three men scanning the roadway. The overlapping shadows had indistinct beginning and end points, all melting into a field of solid black. If there was a person in the middle of the road, I couldn’t see him. It appeared to be as David had said; there was no one there.
Then there was the slightest movement where a break in the tree line had created a window of night sky. Something shifted and covered up a sprinkle of starlight that had been visible a second earlier. I refocused my eyes, and I could make out the outlines of a figure that might have been the head and torso of an adult man. It shifted again, ever so slightly, and I was sure that it was not a tree or a trick of the overlapping shadows.
“I see him!” David shouted. “I see ‘im right up the road there!”
David started forward but my father grabbed his shoulder. “Hold on,” he said in a tone that left no room for argument. Then Dad bent down and picked up the kerosene lantern by its wire loop handle. He held it up level to his shoulder.
“Who goes there?” he asked, repeating Jake’s words. “Identify yourself.” A pause. “We have guns.”
There was no answer; but the man-shaped shadow shifted again.
Dad slowly walked toward the figure in the road, with the lantern in one hand and the shotgun in the other. He had not gone far before the light from the kerosene flame turned the shadow into the definite outlines of a person. Then human features—a face, clothing, and limbs—emerged from the murk.
The young man standing in the middle of the road with my father was trembling. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.
“I—I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean no harm. I was just passin’ through on my way home.”
“What’s your name, son?” my father asked, not unkindly.
“Tommy Fenwick,” he replied.
“Check his eyes,” Jake said.
“It’s okay,” Dad said. “The Fenwicks live just up the road.”
“Just check his eyes,” Jake insisted.
Dad brought the lantern up so that it illuminated Tommy Fenwick’s entire face.
“He’s fine,” Dad concluded. Then he said to Tommy: “Why didn’t you answer us, son? We could have shot you.”
Tommy shrugged. “I didn’t—”
Dad leaned closer to him and sniffed. “Damn, boy, you smell like a still. You been out drinkin’. Hadn’t ya?”
“Yessir,” Tommy replied with his head down.
“Well, that’s between you and your ma. But drinkin’ might be the least of your problems out walkin’ tonight, Tommy. You oughtn’t be out here by yourself. Haven’t you heard? Don’t you know that the Hay Moon has turned bad this year?”
Then Tommy looked up at my father. There was the slightest edge of defiance in his voice: “My ma don’t believe in the Hay Moon, Mr. Hammers. She says it’s all a load of bunk.”
I don’t know how I had expected my father to react. He didn’t tolerate any lip out of David or me, and I wouldn’t have believed that he would have tolerated that kind of talk out of Tommy.
But to my surprise he laughed. “I hope she’s right,” said Dad. “I surely do. But you’d best be careful out walkin’ drunk on the road at night, anyways.”
That last line of Dad’s seemed to put Tommy in his place. He hung his head down again and replied “Yessir.” Then Dad let him pass. He shuffled forward, his feet dragging pebbles as he walked.
I took this as my cue to sneak back to the house. The show was over. And anyway, I had seen and heard enough for tonight. Tomorrow I would press my father for more information. It was clear that he had been holding something back.
At one edge of the front lawn of our farmhouse were the stumps of two trees that had been cut down when the house was built. After lunch the next day, my father took me there to talk. We sat on the two stumps facing each other.
“Paul, have you ever heard of the Hay Moon?”
“Yes, sir.” The Hay Moon was listed in the Farmer’s Almanac that we bought every year. According to folklore, the full moon of each month has a particular name. The most famous of these is the Harvest Moon, which occurs in September. But July is the season of the Hay Moon. I couldn’t recall reading anything significant about the Hay Moon, other than the fact that the term existed.
“Well some years, so they say, the Hay Moon turns bad. And when the Hay Moon turns bad, sometimes bad things happen.”
I must have given him a terribly confused look, because he let out a long sigh. He picked up a loose piece of tree branch that happened to be lying in the space between the two stumps. He began gently tapping the branch on the ground.
“You know Mrs. Wilcox.”
“Yes, sir.” Of course I knew Mrs. Wilcox.
“Well, one day early last week Mrs. Wilcox walks out on her back porch in the morning, and the back lawn is covered with dead blackbirds. Everywhere, on her whole back yard.”
“Dead blackbirds. And they weren’t shot. Their heads had been ripped off. Ben Wilcox counted them when he cleaned up the mess. There were more than forty of them.”
“Someone left forty dead birds at the Wilcox house?” I asked incredulously. “Who would do that?”
“That’s just it, Paul. Who would do such a thing? And who would want to do such a thing?
I shrugged. I couldn’t get over the mental picture I had of Mrs. Wilcox awakening to a lawn full of decapitated birds.
My father went on: “Then last week Jake was out back in his cow pasture, and he sees the creek back there run blood-red. According to him it ran red like that for more than a full minute.”
“The creek water turned red?”
“That’s what Jake says.”
“Do you believe him?”
“I’ve never known him to lie. But it took him another five minutes to gather his wits together. He knew that the red water would mean a bad Hay Moon.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Hard to say, for absolute sure.” He stopped tapping the branch and held it tightly in both hands. “The point is that these things are a warning, a warning that worse might happen soon. One year when I was a boy, we saw the same—the dead blackbirds, the blood-red water, and nothin’ happened. But the same warnings also came once when your granddad was a boy, and they say that some really evil things came later that time.”
I felt a cold pit in my stomach. My father was a no-nonsense, practical man who scorned superstitions like the idea that breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck. He didn’t often use words like “evil.”
“Now, son, this next part is maybe going to scare you a bit, which is why I told you the story about Lucasville. But it seems that you won’t let this go. So let me ask you before I begin: do you really want to hear this?”
Without hesitation, I nodded.
“Do you remember that chapter in the Bible, Paul, where it talks about Lazarus?”
Of course I knew the passage. It was from the book of John. We were Baptists, and we knew our scripture well. Even at eleven, I could have given you a pretty thorough synopsis of every book in the New Testament.
“I remember it from Sunday school. Lazarus was dead. But Jesus came to the edge of the tomb and said to Lazarus, ‘Come forth’; and Lazarus stepped out of the tomb,” I paraphrased.
“Yes.” My father began tracing a straight line in the dirt with the point of the branch. “But you’ll also remember another passage—I think it’s in Matthew, where Jesus drove some demons—some bad ghosts—from the bodies of two other men. The men were dead but the bad ghosts had taken over their bodies. The dead men came out of the tombs and they were, well—they were tryin’ to hurt the living.”
He swallowed. I noticed that the hairs on his arm were standing up, even though the afternoon heat was sweltering.
“You mean—” I wanted him to spell it out for me, but at the same time, I didn’t. I was already trying to reach any conclusion besides the inevitable one.
“I don’t necessarily mean anything, Paul. Like I said, when I was a boy we saw the same warning signs—the dead birds, the blood-red water. But nothing more happened, so far as I know. And your granddad didn’t like to talk about what happened when he was a boy. So I never got the full story from him. I just heard bits and pieces of it here and there, from some of the older folks in these parts.”
“And what did they say?”
He shook his head. “I think you understand enough already, Paul. And now that you do, I think its best that we don’t talk about this anymore. You could give yourself a horrible scare—and probably over nothin’. Today is July fourteenth. The Hay Moon will be gone in a few weeks, and then it will be over until you’re a man with children of your own.”
My father’s explanation of the Hay Moon weighed heavily on me during the next few days. Dad did not have to remind me to stay out of the woods. I kept thinking about the story from the Bible, and Jesus driving the evil spirits from the reanimated shells of men.
My father, Jake Metzger, and my older brother continued their vigil. I sometimes watched them from my bedroom window, which faced the road. But I didn’t attempt to join them again. And as far as I know they never saw a thing.
I was beginning to think that this Hay Moon was a false alarm after all, as it had been in my father’s time.
Then I woke up one night to the sound of my father shouting downstairs. It was a humid night when the heat hung still and oppressive. We had gone to sleep with every window in the house open. Nevertheless, I had tossed and turned for half the night atop my bedclothes, unable to sleep for more than a few hours at a time. So I was probably still half awake when the commotion began.
My father, as I have noted, was a strict disciplinarian, and he occasionally raised his voice with us. But I had never heard him shout like this. He was clearly angry; but beneath the anger in his voice was an unmistakable undercurrent of fear.
“Get away from this house! Leave this family alone!”
I practically jumped out of bed, my bare feet almost slipping on the hardwood floor. I ran out of my room and paused at the top of the stairs. Dad was standing in the front doorway of our house. His shotgun was pointed out over the front porch and into the front yard.
David was there too, behind my father. He held the twenty-two in a ready position, once again going out of his way to look like a grown man rather than a fifteen-year-old-boy.
Until he saw what was outside. David looked past my father through the open door; and an expression crept over his face that told me his usual bravado was gone.
“My God,” he said. “Oh good Lord.” He lowered his gun. My older brother took two or three steps backward. Even from my vantage point at the top of the stairs, I could clearly see that David was trembling. He would be useless to our father if it came to a fight, with whomever or whatever was out there.
And then: a deafening BOOM! from my father’s shotgun.
I ran down the stairs. Although I was now terrified myself, I had to know what had made my bully of an older brother tremble. I had to see it with my own eyes.
Dad looked up and saw me when I was about halfway down.
“STAY UPSTAIRS!” he shouted.
But there was no way I was going to stay upstairs as Dad ran out onto the front porch. I was momentarily unafraid of any potential whipping or grounding that might come later.
David hadn’t followed Dad. He had slumped back against the wall of the foyer until his butt touched the floor. He still held the twenty-two.
I paused in front of my older brother before going outside. “David?” He didn’t answer me. He stared right back at me; but I might as well not have been there.
The smell on the porch was overpowering. It was a smell I would not know again until about ten years later, when larger events in the outside world took me to the charnel house of the battlefield. I covered my mouth and nose as best I could with both hands. My stomach lurched.
Dad was now standing in the front yard. He pointed the gun into the darkness, swinging it around in a one hundred eighty-degree arc.
At length he returned to the porch.
When he saw me, he did not address me with the anger that would have ordinarily accompanied a defiance of a parental order.
My father was in a state of physical terror. To my eleven-year-old mind, this was the most shocking aspect of the situation.
“Pray to God that they’re gone,” he said. “Oh Dear Lord pray that they don’t come back.”
We went back inside the house and my mother had her arms around David. Dad shut the door and locked it. Then he went around the downstairs and shut every last window. Even this was not the end of the precautionary measures. Where possible, Dad moved pieces of furniture in front of the windows.
At length we went back to bed. All except for Dad. As far as I know, he spent the rest of the night awake, seated on the staircase. I must have managed to get back to sleep, for nothing more disturbed our family that night.
I never received a full explanation of what happened, though I was able to surmise most of it. Dad did not want to talk about what he and David had seen in the front yard. I tried to ask David for details, but he refused to even speak about the events of that night. I don’t know if he was still in shock, or perhaps ashamed that he had broken down like that.
My older brother became withdrawn. He was usually quick to pick on me, to seize any opportunity to point out my flaws or make me the butt of a joke. No more. David’s swagger was gone, at least for the time being.
Other than that, it was turning out to be a lousy summer. And things were going from bad to worse.
About a week after the incident on the front porch, Tom Larkin and Marjorie Murphy turned up missing—along with the Model A that belonged to Tom Larkin’s father.
Tom and Marjorie were then nineteen or twenty years old. They were going steady, and the circumstances of their disappearance caused quite a stir throughout the county. Marjorie’s parents had been dead-set against the relationship, and word had it that they had forbidden their daughter to associate with the young man.
Most of the adults in the county weren’t fond of Tom Larkin either. Tom was the sort of youth who would be called a hoodlum in a later era. He was known to drink whiskey illicitly and was quick to use his fists in an argument. “A bad apple from a bad tree” was the phrase that many locals used when dismissing him. Tom’s father, Hank, was a hopeless drunk who was not above using his fists on his own wife and children.
When Hank Larkin found out that his son had vanished with his Model A, he reacted with a torrent of profanity, and vows to rip the boy’s head off when he caught up with him. In the meantime he vented his anger on his wife. Mrs. Larkin was seen in town with a shiner the very next day.
Marjorie’s parents were respectable Baptists. They owned the second- or third-largest farm in the county. They had never been happy about their daughter’s infatuation with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. And now they were frantic.
After Tom and Marjorie had been missing for three days, the speculation about them took several distinct turns. Some believed that the two had eloped. Another faction asserted that Tom Larkin had kidnapped the Murphy girl after she spurned him.
Still others whispered darkly about other possibilities—possibilities that were only hinted at. Perhaps the Hay Moon was turning bad after all, they said. Then an uncomfortable silence would ensue. Conversations about the Hay Moon were typically short; no one really wanted to talk about it. They had all heard the old stories.
Less than a week had passed before Hank Larkin’s Model A was found nose-down in a ditch on a remote rural road at the edge of the county. The star-crossed lovers—if lovers they still were—had not gotten far.
There was a grainy picture of the Model A in the Adams County Gazette. The front half of the car was completely submerged in the ditch. I was reading bits and pieces of the Gazette story over my father’s shoulder. He had the paper spread out in front of him on the kitchen table.
“Where are Tom and Marjorie?” I asked my father—as if he had some special insight into the situation.
“Nowhere around, according to the paper,” Dad replied, taking a sip from his coffee mug. “Who knows? They might have been scared about gettin’ caught with the car and took off walkin’ through the woods. Maybe they hitched a ride with another driver. You never know. Though it’s hard to imagine them just walking away from that Model A. You could break your neck in an accident like that.”
“Dad? Do you think that Tom and Marjorie…well, maybe they…”
“It’s better not to think such things. Let it go, son.”
A few nights later I awoke again in the middle of the night. Even at eleven, I had a tendency to remember uncompleted tasks in the wee hours. (It is a habit that I still have, even in my eighties. If I forget to mail an overdue bill or make a promised phone call, the realization will stir in my subconscious and rouse me from my sleep.)
And on this night a potential disaster loomed. I had forgotten to feed Calvin Coolidge.
Calvin Coolidge was no housecat. Dad let me keep a bowl of water and a scrap bowl for him out in the barn. I wanted the cat to stay around, so I kept him supplied with food and water. I never let him down, not even a single day.
Well, that day I had, or at least I thought so.
Or had I? I started running through all the events of the day: weeding the garden, playing catch with David, feeding Calvin Coolidge—
No, I hadn’t fed him. Not today.
I pounded my fist into the sheets. The cat could wait until morning, I told myself. Just this once.
Then I remembered something my father had told me right after he had consented to letting Calvin Coolidge join the family: “Tomcats have a way of wandering off, Paul, especially if they don’t have a regular supply of food and water. Water is very important for any animal, just like it is for people. That’s something a cat will go off looking for if he doesn’t have it. Keep Calvin fed and watered if you want him to stay around.”
I imagined my faithful cat waiting in the shadows of the barn for me to bring him water and nourishment. I pictured him waiting for hours in vain, before deciding to leave our farm to look for better accommodations. Perhaps he would go to one of the farmhouses down the road. Or maybe he would wander off into the woods, where he could drink water from the creek and catch field mice.
(“Keep Calvin fed and watered if you him to stay around.”)
I realized that I could lose Calvin forever if I failed in my duty as a master. And it would be all my own fault, wouldn’t it?
So go feed him now, I thought.
This idea sent a chill down my bare arms and legs. Dad had forbidden me to leave the house after dark. By itself, my father’s injunction wouldn’t have been an insurmountable barrier. I was generally an obedient kid but I occasionally bent the rules when I knew I wouldn’t get caught. I believed that I could make my way out to the barn and back without waking anyone else in the house.
The problem was that I didn’t want to go outside. Not after all the stories about the Hay Moon, and most all—not after that night when something had visited my family. I had seen nothing myself that night—except the expression on my older brother’s face when he stared into the darkness beyond our front door. And I remembered the way my father—normally so brave and sure of himself—had actually trembled with fear, totally without answers, when he returned to the house.
No, whatever was out there, it was too much for me to cope with.
But then I thought of Calvin. Once again I imagined him wandering off in search of food and water, just like my father had described.
And in that instant, the matter was decided. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and fumbled around beneath me for a pair of shoes. I slipped on the shoes and tied them hurriedly. Then I placed my weight onto the floor and stood in the middle of my darkened bedroom. The floorboards creaked. With each step I took toward the door of my bedroom, they creaked more. But I kept walking.
I paused, expecting the voice of my father, my mother, or even David at any minute. Nothing.
As I crept down the stairs, I gripped the banister firmly and paused for a moment at each step. The journey down the front stairs might have taken me ten minutes. The boards conspired against me, creaking each time I put my foot down, threatening to let out a groan that would wake the whole house.
Once I was on the first floor of the old farmhouse I could move more freely. The first floor didn’t creak as badly. Just get this over with, I told myself. This was going to work out okay. I was suddenly more confident.
The first part of my mission was a success: I had no trouble scrounging up a meal for Calvin in our kitchen. The table scraps had all been cleared away, so I rooted around in the garbage can until I found a lump of bacon fat and a few pieces of ham. The food already had a sour smell; but I could do no better at this hour. I would treat Calvin Coolidge to a feast tomorrow. Yes, I would: a feast that any cat would love.
The back door was difficult to open silently. I had to unlatch the lock; and even though I moved the bolt slowly, it produced an audible click. I paused again, waiting for my father’s voice and then his footsteps from the upstairs.
I believe that a part of me wanted him to wake up and intervene. He would be angry, of course; but perhaps I could talk him into going out with me. Then I would be spared going alone.
I counted to ten. Neither words nor footsteps came from the second floor of the house. I gently pulled open the door, stepped outside, and then pulled the door closed behind me.
The air was cooler than I had expected and the dew had already fallen on the back lawn. The night was still. There was not a trace of a breeze tonight.
Darkness remakes every landscape. I could barely recognize the topography of my backyard—which was so familiar in the daylight. Moonlight cast shadows from the trees, the water pump, and my mother’s clotheslines. The shadows stretched and distorted themselves across the moist grass, adding to the sudden unfamiliarity of the scene.
I grabbed the handle of the water pump and coaxed a bit of water into the tin cup that hung atop it. The pump, too, threatened to betray me with its scraping and gurgling sounds.
Now armed with both food and water for my cat, I surveyed the barn. The barn was just a short ways from the house—in daylight that is. In the middle of the night the distance seemed much, much longer.
I noticed that the barn door was ajar.
I should have stopped and turned around right then. My dad—particular as he was about his things—would not have left the barn door open. He would never have made a mistake like that. I could have changed my mind then, and saved myself a lifetime of nightmares; but my fear of losing my cat was at that moment greater than my fear of the open barn door.
I started walking.
The barn grew closer. I peered through the partially open door. The black, gaping hole revealed nothing. Until—
I thought I saw movement inside the barn. I froze where I stood and focused my vision.
I looked. Then I looked closer. No. There was nothing.
No. No. No. It was only your imagination, dummy, I scolded myself. Hurry up and take care of your cat and get back to bed. Your eyes are playing tricks on you.
And besides, the Hay Moon seemed to be over. Things had quieted down over the past week, hadn’t they?
A loop of coarse rope served as a makeshift handle on the barn door. I pulled the barn door further ajar and smelled all the familiar smells: hay, dust, and the oily and metallic odors from my father’s workbench.
But there was another odor as well. An odor that made me want to gag.
“Did you catch a mouse and leave it in here, Calvin?” I asked, speaking in a low volume to the still unseen cat. “Or a rabbit, maybe?”
I swung the barn door completely open and rested it against the outer wall of the building. The angle of the moonlight gave me some visibility—which was good, since there were no electric lights out here, and I hadn’t brought a kerosene lamp.
Once inside, I located Calvin’s food and water dishes. I dropped the table scraps into one of the dishes and poured the cup of water into the other. I set the cup down on the dirt floor and called to my cat.
“Calvin? Where are you, boy? Come and get your supper”
The voice that answered me was not quite human.
“Ohhh Calvin, ohhh come here, kitty, kitty.” It was a hiss and a whisper, a distant sound like stones falling down a well. It was a voice full of mockery and malevolence.
I saw the girl first, and I knew right away that she was Marjorie Murphy. I had seen her before in town, and her picture had just appeared in the local paper.
But I also knew right away that something wasn’t right. Her head was twisted to the side. Then she
(“You could break your neck in an accident like that,” my father had said.)
placed her hand at the base of her chin and pulled her head around to face me. I heard a moist, popping sound that nauseated me.
In life Marjorie had been a lovely girl with flowing red hair and a light complexion. Now her skin had turned to a whitish pallor. Blotches of fungus dotted her cheeks and arms. Her hair was in tangles, matted with dirt and weeds. Perhaps she had been thrown from the car during the accident.
“Still looking for your cat?” the Marjorie thing said. “Don’t mind us.”
It might be more correct to say that she choked and gurgled out her words—rather than spoke them. In later years I would conclude that the injuries to her vocal chords had made speech difficult. And there was also decay to consider; her accident had occurred several weeks ago.
I felt my bladder go.
“Us?” I asked, or I might have only thought the question.
Then Tom Larkin came shuffling out of the shadows near my father’s work bench area. His body was also bent and contorted from the automobile accident. His left foot was crushed; he dragged it along as he walked mostly on the other leg. And one of Tom’s elbows had been completely broken. The arm swung freely, dangling on skin, muscle, and tendons. He lurched steadily towards me.
In life Tom had gone around with an in-your-face expression. The typical small-town tough guy. Now that was distorted into a clenched grimace of rage. And his eyes: they were red, and glowing.
“We’re going to kill your whole family. And we’re going to make you watch.”
Tom didn’t even move his lips, although the words issued from his body. I recalled the New Testament story that my father and I had discussed, the one from the Book of Matthew.
(“The men were dead but the bad ghosts had taken over their bodies. The dead men came out of the tombs and they were, well—they were tryin’ to hurt the living.”)
Somehow I managed to speak, though just barely.
“Please!” was all I could get out. It was little more than a whisper. Tears were streaming down my cheeks.
A cruel laughter came out of Marjorie. Her eyes now gleamed with that same unholy red light. “Oh please,” it mocked. “PLEASE!” This time she did not move her lips, and the voice sounded like a combination of a hundred-year-old man and a small child. The voice was layered, as if more than one entity were speaking.
She smiled—though it was not a smile. It was a hideous contorted grin that stretched her mouth unnaturally, beyond all normalness of a human shape.
I collapsed to my knees and then fell backward. I felt suddenly cold, like I wanted to just shut down and—
There was yet another presence in the barn.
“GET AWAY FROM MY SON!”
My father’s voice. But how?
Dad strode into the barn. He carried a shotgun in one hand and a rectangular object in the other.
It was my grandmother’s old King James Bible.
Then there was another person on the other side of me. My brother David. He also had a gun.
Dad handed the Bible to David and pointed the shotgun at Tom Larkin.
Tom jerked violently backward and fell. At first I thought that this was the end of him. Then he started to get up again. He righted himself, though not like a normal person would. It was as if there were invisible hands lifting Tom to his feet.
He was erect again. His chest was a crisscross of shredded cloth and flesh.
David held the Bible open for my father, and he removed a folded piece of paper from the book. The paper was yellow and crinkly, torn at the edges. My father read from the paper.
“Adúro te, serpens antíque, per júdicem vivórum et mortuórum, per factórem tuum, per factórem mundi, per eum, qui habet potestátem mitténdi te in gehénnam”
I would later find out that this was a Latin prayer of exorcism, commonly used by the Roman Catholic Church. As a Baptist my father of course did not know Latin. He read the words awkwardly; and I doubt that he knew what a tenth of them meant. But he knew the overall meaning of the prayer. Somehow, he managed to read it with emotion, with conviction.
The Tom thing roared at him. Marjorie’s head swiveled back to the side, and a deep moan came from within her. It was not a sympathetic moan. It was the moan of a wounded animal.
“Ut ab hoc fámulo Dei, qui (ab hac fámula Dei., quæ) ad Ecclésiæ sinum recúrrit, cum metu, et exército furóris tui festínus discédas.” my father continued. His voice and hands were shaking the entire time.
Tom opened his mouth and shrieked. The shriek was comprised of a thousand voices. In the lifetime of nightmares that followed, I would often awaken with the sound of that shriek in my ears.
Nevertheless, my father had weakened them. If he read the entire prayer, it would be just like the story in the Book of Matthew. The demons would be cast out of their hosts. The bodies would drop where they stood.
The creatures in our barn seemed to know this.
Slowly, their red eyes glowing with pure hatred, they edged their way backward, toward the double doors on the other side of the barn.
With the arm that was still usable, Tom pointed at my brother David. “You’ll die in the sand with your insides torn out” it said. “You will die screaming, calling out for your mother like a baby. What a coward you will be! And in so much pain!”
“Be gone!” my father shouted, and read once more from the page of Latin script: “Adjúro te íterum non mea infirmitáte, sed virtúte Spíritus Sancti!”
Now Marjorie, as she retreated, addressed my father. Her voice was deep and masculine. Ancient. “And you: You’re going to die as well. You’ll be in your grave with the leader. Cold and dead and moldering. On the very same day”
And then she locked those horrible red eyes on me and hissed: “Someday, boy. Someday we’ll come back for you.”
A sudden gust swept through the set of doors that I had opened. Hay and dust swirled within the barn. I coughed as the debris entered my eyes and throat. The wind blew open the far set of doors with a loud crash.
I did not see them leave. I buried my face in my hands. I started bawling like a baby.
I felt my father’s grip around my arms.
“Come on, son. They’re gone. They can’t hurt any of us now.”
Somehow I managed to get up. But now I was shaking uncontrollably. I closed my eyes tightly, in denial of what I had just witnessed. I began to take rapid, spasmodic breaths. I was on the verge of hyperventilating. At any moment I would pass out, I was sure. And suddenly, I felt cold—as if it were January rather than early August.
“Easy,” my father said. “Paul, it’s over. Calm down and open your eyes.”
With a considerable effort, I did.
Together the three of us walked back to the house. My mother was waiting for us at the back door. The kitchen lights were on.
About halfway back to the house, David turned to my father.
“Dad, what do you think he meant? What he said about me? Is somethin’ bad going to happen to me?”
My dad clapped David on the back. “You’re going to be fine, David. That thing was just talkin’. Tryin’ to scare you. Nothin’s going to happen to you.”
Then Dad put his arm on my shoulder. “And to you neither. You’re both going to be fine.”
Yes, I know you’ve got questions. First of all, what was a Baptist doing with a copy of a Latin prayer of exorcism folded away between the pages of his King James Bible? I later found out that my grandfather—my father’s father—had acquired the prayer during the previous time of troubles, long before my own father was born.
When I shut the back door, it had indeed made enough noise to wake the rest of the family. My father and brother took a few minutes to get dressed and come after me; but my own clumsiness set my rescue in motion. When my dad looked out the window and saw the open barn door, he knew that there was trouble. And his experiences of a few weeks prior told him that he would need weapons—both worldly and sacred.
And what about the predictions the creatures made about my father and brother before they departed? I would like to tell you that these were nothing but empty threats. The truth is otherwise.
My brother David died in September 1942. He was in one of the first U.S. Marine divisions that landed on Guadalcanal. I didn’t find out about his death until a month after he died. I was in Europe myself then, fighting on the other great front of that horrific war. After I read the telegram, I was numb for the rest of the day and I could barely speak to anyone. That night I dreamt about David. I relived that night in the barn. Then the dream moved to the scorched and cratered beach of an island in the Pacific. David was there. I could see him twisting around in the sand with a belly wound—just like the evil thing in the barn had said ten years earlier.
I woke up and the realization fully hit me. David was gone.
He was sometimes a bully of an older brother, but there was good in him, too. At that moment, thousands of miles away from home and facing possible death myself, oh, how I loved him.
I feared that my father would be dead shortly after that. By April 1945 I had enough service points to transfer stateside. V-E Day was less than a month away and we were getting ready for the big assault on Japan. But for me, the war was already over. The army had assigned me to a training camp in the middle of the country. I was teaching other men how to kill and face death.
As soon as I heard the news about FDR on April 12 I called my parents’ home in Ohio. My mother assumed that I wanted to talk about the president’s death. But I only wanted to talk to my father.
“Your father’s fine,” my mother said. “He’s working out in the barn.”
“Let me talk to him,” I insisted. “Go get him. Please.”
She did as I asked. My father might have been slowing down a bit; he was in his early fifties by now, after all. But there were no timbres of imminent death that I could detect in his voice. I called them again on the next day. To my relief, my father was still fine.
Almost twenty years would pass before that part of the evil creatures’ prophecy came true. This time it was not the peaceful death of a leader who had grown sick and elderly. This time it was a young president, taken way before his time with violence. An evil act.
The phone rang one evening in November of 1963. I had been watching the reports from Dallas. My mother’s voice was hysterical, choked with tears. My father was dead. He had collapsed from a sudden heart attack.
I went on with my life, of course. I raised two children. I had a moderately successful career and retired. I did not allow the evil events of long ago to dominate my life. I buried them. And for the most part, they stayed buried.
Nevertheless, they never went away completely. Sometimes—like tonight—the old memories come back.
It won’t be long before the doorbell starts ringing. I like children, but I won’t be passing out any candy tonight. Not this Halloween. This year I’m going to sit at my kitchen table; and I won’t open the door when it rings.
I am too old to be frightened by the thought of death. But I was raised by my mother to be a Christian, and I do fear for my immortal soul.
Because somehow I know, as sure as I know that my knees ache when I stand up—if my father and brother wouldn’t have come into the barn, those two creatures would have done more than taken my life. They would have made me as they were.
As they were? Or as they are? So much time has passed since that night in the barn; but I suspect that the undead can last forever in their unholy state of existence. I can’t forget the final words those creatures said to me that night in the barn: they promised that they would come back for me. I can’t have many years left on this earth; so perhaps tonight is the night.
As I look out of my kitchen window, I can see my entire backyard. This house is in the suburbs. It has a postage-stamp-sized lot—nothing like the open land that we had on the farm. Instead of a barn, now I have a tool shed, a little structure that I had built some years ago to store my lawnmower and other items that I use to maintain the house. It has just enough room for a workbench. Like my father before me, I’m something of a tinkerer.
The door of the shed is partially ajar, though I know that I shut and latched it this afternoon.
Seventy years ago I was willing to walk through doors like that into dark and unknown spaces. Not today. I am an old man now, and my father and brother are no longer here to save me. And if Tom and Marjorie are out there, I believe that their hunger will have grown stronger over the years.
After all, they have been waiting for me for a long time.
Copyright 2009, Edward Trimnell