AGATHA’S BARN: A CARPENTER’S FARM STORY (part 2)

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Welcome back to “Agatha’s Barn” by Michael Bailey. This is a tie-in to Carpenter’s Farm, the serial novel by Josh Malerman, author of Bird Box, Inspection, Malorie, and others. Created with permission, and free for all to enjoy during this strange time. Featuring illustrations throughout by Glenn Chadbourne.

If you’re new to “Agatha’s Barn,” be sure to read Part 1 first. I also I highly recommend catching up on Carpenter’s Farm (at least the first twelve or so chapters) before continuing on to this Part 2. Josh adds new chapters each Monday, Wednesday & Friday.

Anyway, enjoy the woods!


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life
hangs on
by a string,
so delicate,
a never-ending cyclical nightmare;
when will humankind learn how to listen
to sense, logic?
not ever,
until
death.

past
creates
illusions,
in retrospect,
premonitions of uncertain futures;
history repeats every so often,
all unprepared,
shocked by the
present,
now.

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Agatha folded the strip of notepaper in half, twice, thrice, then put everything back in her pack. Five jars clang-clunked inside. Broken bells for the dead. Her stomach ached, the food all but gone. With no books in which to hide her poem, she chose a willow at random, sliced a slit beneath its bark, slid in the secret message. Paper returned to the trees, she mused.

“Paper Earth,” she said aloud, thinking of the earlier poem, one of the smaller stanzas suddenly there and then gone forever: What to write, fill the thoughts of few / as each word cuts deep, every last thing … and then part of another: We were here … which then dissolved.

How long she’d been in the woods, she didn’t know, but each willow at the edge of the farm held a story. Some now with stories within stories, for she’d lost count of the poems she’d given them, each a snippet of her subconscious. Days? A week? She’d been in the woods long enough for her nails to grow out and hold dirt from all her digging.

“We were,” she said to her youth, past-tense.

Agatha ventured deep into the woods, sure, but something always pulled her back to the farm (the barn) and like the shadows she’d imagined (or had seen) slinking out from between trees, and the windows by way of impossible light, she too would find herself stepping out of that world, then in, as she admired the farmhouse until its glow winked out each night.

Roll over, Oliver, over all of her.

The alliteration of the phrase flowed through Aggie, not through her older self, and so Agatha’d find herself questioning the girl. Questioning the “her” in that ramble, for Oliver’d come to this place on his own. Alone. From the cover of the copse, they’d watch him between windows in his cover of the house (a different world) filled with the energy of a child, pulling linen and other coverings from the furniture. Unghosting the ghosts.

He’d brought electricity to the house (and to the barn).

Soon he’d bring others once like him. Stories, more stories …

All over her, Oliver, the girl would sing, swapping the order, and Agath’d wonder about the name, how she’d come across the words. No one ever said their name aloud while alone, unless crazy, unless— Right, Aggie?

She’d come to the edge of the willows each night, one step out, one step in, and watch from afar. She’d open her journal, write under moonlight when words called her. Poetry writes itself, she knew. And then she’d give the words back to the trees in the morning, bleeding their sap. They’d accept, their salicylic acid absorbing her pull (of the pool) of thought as their own.

This morning, like all mornings, she resisted the gravity of the farm.

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The empty jar buried beneath the rock behind the barn wasn’t the invisible string constantly tugging her to return. Something more. She turned her back to the mystery, tugged against the resistance, made her way as far as she could into the woods until she fell to the ground.

Mother Earth had its pull on her, the way the ever-slowly winking and unwinking eye of the moon moved tides one way or another—eventually giving up and letting go; the woods called Agatha just as regularly, wanting her to unearth Mother’s truths. Mother’s story.

Soft and saturated soil hemorrhaged in her hands. Agatha dug as the icy-wet ground bit her fingertips, wriggling worms splitting and squirming between them. She dug until her fingers found what they’d expected, what they’d happened upon each separate morning, what shouldn’t be there, in the ground, the glass smooth: a Mason jar buried not so deep.

“Mother,” Agatha said, reading the dirty label.

The girl’s handwriting.

Mama, Aggie said.

A strip of paper inside, like all the others. A single word written in neither of their fonts. Mother’s script, but no, that couldn’t be. She brushed away smears of brown, held the jar up to the sun peeking between the canopies above her: ‘fire,’ this one read, lit in yellow.

Agatha unscrewed the lid, put the puzzle piece in her pocket, copied the single word on a page in the back of the notebook where she’d transcribed words found in others: ‘ash,’ and ‘borne’ (perhaps ‘born,’ the last letter a smudge of dirt or ink or not there at all) and now ‘fire.’

Fragments of the untold.

“What are you trying to tell me, tell us?

Wind sighed through the trees, not a bird on a branch, not a flutter of wings or a peep. The woods inhaled, exhaled. She did the same, as if they were breathing in sync. She’d read The Wind in the Willows in grade school, couldn’t remember a lick of it, something to do with badgers or foxes or— and how could the “Mother” jar even—

Had she slept? Where? Agatha couldn’t recall. She could only remember the banshee cries of Help! from the foxes a night or two or three ago, one trying to find the other. Could only remember walking deep into the woods and then back again, to the light. Could only remember waking from somnambulism, on her feet, close to the edge of the woods. Dirty fingernails, caked underneath and red and sore. Sometimes waking wet during hard rain and seeking shelter.

She reburied the empty jar, déjà vu of déjà vu forming and fading, becoming jamais vu, never seen, and placed a pile of rocks over it, obvious-like, so she wouldn’t dig there again. There would be more. There would always be more. The same jar each morning, different spot.

How—?

“We’re losing it, Aggie,” she’d tell her younger self, but her younger self’d shrug off the paranormal as normal. “Are you hungry, thirsty?” The girl’d nod inside, and she’d nod.

Agatha considered the worms.

Three days, three nights. Three jars buried in the earth.

“No, not yet,” she said, meaning the meal.

She dumped out her backpack. Four jars spilled out, each empty, but not: “shame” and “pity” and “fear” and another not yet labeled. Long ago, some unknown when (three days, longer?) she’d taken her name out of the pity jar, and the other strips of paper. The last day at the barn. She’d crumpled ‘Aggie’ into a wad, took it in her mouth and swallowed and cried and—

Don’t say nothin’ to no one or I’ll—

No, she’d no longer pity herself that way, with thoughts of her father, her past, nor would she ever again. The past is past. The past has passed. The dead buried. The jars she’d once filled with nails, she’d hammered out all those terrible flaws into the old wood, gave them all to the barn on Carpenter’s Farm. This was the name for the place, she knew, but knew not how she knew, like the name Oliver.

Roll over, Oliver. All over her, Aggie sang. Give ‘all of her’ to Oliver.

The can opener and an empty can of what smelled like peaches fell out of the bag, as well as the lighter, her knife, notebook and pen, and spent wrappers from granola bars and trash she couldn’t toss out into the wild for that would no longer make the wild wild. She couldn’t remember when she last ate, and lifted her shirt, counted ribs. Jeans a bit saggier.

But where were her other changes of clothes, the bottle of water? Perplexed, Agatha up-ended the bag and out fell the hammer that had ended Chris. She shook out crumbs and dirt, not much else. She’d lost her other possessions, or no longer needed them, like her shoes.

How long have we been going about barefoot?

The labels on the jars defined her, in a way. Her old self.

The labels, like her flaws, those ugly traits, would need to go.

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A seasonal creek side-winded and split the earth a good half-mile out. She could follow that, she knew. It would lead to more water, to life. But instead she went there to drink as she had before. Her stomach clenched at the cold, at perhaps something else, and when she looked up, she met the eyes of a silent doe at the water’s edge, young enough to have spots. Unconcerned about her presence. As she stood, the deer looked past her, drank again, then went on its way.

Agatha: No parents.

Aggie: Like us.

Agatha: All alone.

Aggie: Unlike us.

They were not alone in the woods, that much was understood, but with her fear jar emptied, the shadows between the trees no longer seemed anxious.

Her older self considered following the stream as her younger self played naked in the water. They were both a mess, and so she let little Aggie take over. Children rarely minded frigid waters, at least when “swimming” was concerned, and that’s what one did while the other bathed and watched out for peeping (father) predators.

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Agatha: He can no longer hurt us.

Aggie: ’Cause he’s dead?

Agatha: Yes.

Aggie: But that hasn’t stopped him before.

The gaunt woman in the water’s wavy face rippled and exposed protruding cheekbones, dark deep-set sockets, skin smudged with bruise or mud, the reflection becoming merged generations: Agatha-Mother. What she could remember of the woman, anyway, for she was about Agatha’s age now when she’d died. This was back in New York before she and her father’d moved out west. Only eleven and motherless, her mother’d been taken by pneumonia.

Aggie: A lie he told us to make us forget, to learn a new truth.

Agatha: Not pneumonia, no. Taken by the city’s teeth.

Aggie cried, remembering the day.

Agatha wiped away the tears for her, as she always had.

The girl went fully under to mask them, stayed there a while, counting one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, and this was fine, listening to her heartbeat in her ears as she waited for the boom, the crash, the world falling apart, which she’d always expected whenever the news’d replay what’d been caught on cellphones from the dusty-gray people on the ground, all necks tilted back: the plane silently entering one side of the building, disappearing out the other, like some kind of magic trick. Soundless. Lightning impossibly distant.

Nine-eleven-one-thousand, lungs already ready to explode, the count lost.

The world’s tallest smokestack billowing, then the first—

Agatha: She wasn’t even supposed to go in that day.

Aggie: To the tower.

Agatha: The second one.

Aggie: …

Agatha: …

Red dragons scream through hot breath,
rushing in to those running out.
Countless miniature hands cover mouths
so as not to aspirate their fiery breaths
billowing from all directions.
            (gray cauliflower)
                        (warm yeast blooms)
An island of multi-millions looks skyward,

changed to identical skin, within seconds,
camouflaged by debris
against a backdrop of terror.

She’d stashed the poem in some paperback (a school reading assignment that’d never had the chance to sink in) left forgotten back “home” when they’d fled. All she remembered of the poem … and one other bit about people running. The memories soon disintegrated—

Monochrome miniature heads glance back
so as not to miss the acrobats
tumbling from all directions.
            (spiraling cartwheels)
                        (somersaults)

—but she remembered the hand across her face a few years later, the bruise that followed like a glove pink on her cheek. We gotta go, Aggie! You fuckin’ listen, you unner’stand? but she hadn’t then and didn’t now. Only unner’stood the pain, the confusion of having to move so suddenly away from all that was familiar. The ’monia took her (protecting little Aggie with the lie, but why with all other truths out in the open?) and now we gotta go! She hadn’t taken any of her books, her stuffies, her music, the physical things that helped define her as a teenager.

Forty-one-thousand, lungs burning afire underwater and about to collapse, forty-one-one-thousand, like the first tower, forty-two-one-thousand, mom calling to say she was okay in the second, her staticy voice saying the damaged floors were beneath her, I love you, Aggie, then Aggie handing over the phone to her father as requested, Let me speak to ‘him’ (never ‘your father’), and overhearing that people were smashing windows and planning to—

                        / blink

The burned-in image of Aggie crumbling to the ground synchronous with the second building brought Agatha gasping out of the water.

She got out of the creek and air-dried, shaking from more than the wintry waters, and redressed. A shadow of a man stepped into cover. A glimpse of black foot, bare ankle. “I see you,” Agatha said, but did she? Her words never mattered; the shapes appeared and disappeared as they pleased. Their stories came out of the trees and onto her page in inky wisps, erased by wind. She had an audience for her poetry, and so she pulled out her notebook and pen and titled what came out of her mind as “Cartwheels,” always there, for poems write themselves.

they fly like superheroes
arms outstretched
scarves flapping as capes
swan dives
pencil dives
cannonballs
hands holding hands
so as not to be alone
in the empty sky

clouds float like battleships
over an ocean of asphalt

they fly like superheroes
hand-over-hand
feet-over-feet
tiny silhouettes
five-pointed stars
falling through daylight
pinwheels
tumbleweeds
acrobats

the world flips
down becomes up

Agatha’d always thought of her mother as one of the blurry dots jumping to her death instead of burning up inside—a hundred floors or higher. She’d dreamt the moment often.

Walking into a stranger’s office, following Mother to the window, saying,

“Where you going? Mom?”

Mother climbing out the window, not listening or unable to hear little Aggie. “Mother!” little Aggie yells, realizing where she is, and when, and the exact day and the exact time, and the woman turns to her, then, so unlike her mother, a witch—eyes solid black, too large, obsidian—and then she’s standing on the ledge, smiling.

Mother doesn’t look down. Mother doesn’t look at her daughter. But she speaks, or tries to with a sound like static, a needle along vinyl; words broken, same as always, she says,

“The worst part about finding yourself is reaching the end,” or sometime in the phrase is flipped and she says, “The worst part about reaching the end is finding yourself.”

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And then little Aggie’s finding herself, reaching the end of her mother.

The same loop repeated forever and ever and EVER!

Other times she’s back in her childhood living room, father on his chair sipping warm beer, his Kool dangling a crooked finger of ash, and the television from which she watches the news upside-down (or she herself upside-down on the floor), watching Mother falling up. And sometimes the clips are played in reverse, people reeling from ground to sky, chairs unbreaking windows, smoke unbillowing, planes materializing out of the buildings and flying in reverse; father’s crooked finger of ash becoming a new cigarette, the phone unringing.

Agatha folded the poem (and her mind), folded again, and again.

Where the shadow-leg’d disappeared, she approached the closest tree, used the blade of her knife to notch a sleeve in the bark, tucked the square of paper inside, where it would rot.

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The farm pulled hard with its spidery silk. Agatha’d walked as far as she could before it pulled taut, ready to snap. Perhaps two miles. Seemed farther without shoes or socks. A hum in her mind, there, but barely. Flick that cord and life would ping a note diminuendo, soften till silent.

Would she snap out of this waking dream, then, find her freedom? To slice her tether to the barn, she knew, would be like cutting her wrist past the point of hesitation—she had those marks too, thought about them often. No turning back once that note played. How far beyond the woods could she go before bleeding out? How far into life, as she once knew it, could she travel before life no longer wanted her in its story?

She became one with the dark as the sun kissed the roof of the farmhouse on its slow descent. Oliver was there, in the yard, talking to no one, then talking to one of the shadows, or to his own distorted shadow. He held an empty jar (not “Mother,” she knew, buried behind the barn and buried impossibly everywhere in the woods). The other (a man, a farmer) pointed out to the crops, some of which were dead, some not, then pointed at the jar in Oliver’s hands.

The one Agatha’d placed in the pantry, which she’d labeled “forgiveness”?

She couldn’t tell for certain.

Was forgiveness a trait?

She supposed it was.

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She found the next “Mother” jar by way of fox, gray like ash. The creature made the only sound in the woods other than the trees exposing the wind. She couldn’t remember sleeping, or waking, or ever eating, but simply coming to, suddenly there and in the now. The sound of tiny feet digging in the dewed dirt drew her attention to the patch of soft earth. A fresh grave.

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The fox gave up, disappeared into brush.

Everything here is unfeasibly green, Agatha realized, the ground fresh and there, everything more alive, more vibrant, more now, the blue through the trees more blue.

“Like the painted backdrop of some play,” she told her younger self.

How long she’d been walking, or where to (or where from) was a clandestine moment. Not cold, and not far from the edge of the protective fence of willows surrounding the farm. Sad is the word she might put in the pity jar to describe her first thought.

“When and what is this?”

Morning, and also mourning, she and her younger self considered.

During her stay in the barn, she’d always thought of the tree line as an impassable boundary for discovering one’s self, the entrance to a stage, the shadows like brushstrokes on props, but now that she was beyond the curtain and inside its warm and loving embrace, she realized the woods had realization / revelation. A more primitive power. Mother Earth, the writer, a mother to all, who understood all, who controlled all …

Her younger self thought of all this as “neat,” how the fox unearthed today’s secret.

Her older self thought of all this as “coincidence” and nothing more.

Aggie: There’s no such thing as coincidence.

Agatha: Just appropriately timed incidents.

Aggie: But what is today, really?

Agatha: Now, I guess. I guess it’s right now.

She took over for the fox, falling to her knees. She dug with her hands, most of her fingernails broken down to nothing, but not bleeding.

Aggie: Daddy’s dirty fingernails, remember?

Agatha: Stop.

The old Mason jar was buried about as deep as the others. The soft dirt gave way, revealing the same damn jar as before, the same jar labeled “Mother,” weathered by many years. Mother buried long ago. Agatha brushed off the mud, held the glass up to an impossibly blue-painted sky, and shook it to flip the strip of paper inside in order to see what was written.

Agatha: Did you bury these here?

Aggie: Not that I can remember.

Agatha: Did I?

This one read ‘rise.’

She flipped to the back pages of her notebook, taken aback by the other words already written there besides: ‘fire’ and ‘borne’ (or ‘born’) and ‘ash.’ In the girl’s childish handwriting were three prepositions: ‘up’ and ‘from’ and ‘despite.’

Agatha: You wrote these?

Aggie: Not that I can remember.

Agatha: Did I?

They buried the “Mother” jar, again (forever Mother now, no longer mother), and found some rocks to use as a makeshift headstone, and created a pile to keep them from digging in the same spot again during their absent-minded wandering.

Fire, born(e), ash, up, from, despite, rise

Mother’s secret story.

A puzzle putting itself together.

The poem writing itself.

Aggie: Neat.

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The five jars had also changed at some point, those with prior labels ripped off and possibly swallowed to satiate the hunger. The knot in her stomach had unknotted, filled. No more need for labels. No more pity, no more shame, no more fear. She’d spilled the contents out of her backpack after realizing the impossible weight she carried on her way back to the fence of willows surrounding the farm. Not walking from the woods to the tree line, she knew, but from the dead and not-so-dead fields to the copse of trees. She couldn’t recall how the jars had filled, like her stomach, only that one of the shadows had shown her where to go to fill them, to the crops. A farmer. A mosaic of shattered glass, this memory. Had she returned to the barn?

Inside, the jars were no longer empty, each full with greens.

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Why (how) do I know these jars are filled with traits? She thought of the “Mother” jar buried behind the barn and likewise buried deep in the woods (impossibly everywhere). Empty, but not, like mother’s coffin back in New York. Is “mother” a trait?

She asked the trees, and figured it was.

Agatha fed until filled, held her belly.

Chris’d wanted her to have that trait, had tried forcing it upon her some nights, with the heavy desire of father. Chris’d wanted a boy to carry on his family name, and’d said if she shat out a girl they’d try again, and again, and again; that they’d abort (as if he had any part in it), to try for a boy instead. After years of trying, he’d lost interest in all but the back of his hand.

Agatha’d always figured her father had wanted a boy. Both her father and Chris had that in common, yes, and she’d fallen into the leading role for Women Marrying Men Like Their Fathers—a tragic play. Until she’d headstoned that final nail.

Openness.

Conscientiousness.

Extraversion.

Agreeableness.

Neuroticism.

Those were the five main traits, she knew. She’d learned as much trying to figure out who she was over the years, what made her, the shift from Aggie to Agatha undifferentiated.

a never-ending cyclical nightmare;
when will humankind learn how to listen

The poem from the other day all but gone, lost to the trees:

past
creates
illusions,
in retrospect,
premonitions of uncertain futures;
history repeats every so often

When would she learn?

not ever,
until
death.

Something deep inside (maybe little Aggie, stuck there forever) told her she’d gone into the barn: Agatha’s Barn. She’d stayed there awhile to feed, and had come back to the woods with her toes caked in mud, as they’d remained the last few days (if time mattered), her entire being more nourished. Lifting up her shirt, she counted the ribs, and there were fewer exposed.

There were thousands upon thousands of traits under those five categories, “as many as four thousand,” she’d once read, and when put together they defined a person. Traits could be learned, forgotten, swallowed; and they could be grown.

“What’s in the barn?” Agatha asked the night.

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“The worst part about finding yourself is reaching the end,” and sometimes “The worst part about reaching the end is finding yourself.”

Her father’d eventually found himself, had reached his end. This was shortly after Agatha’d turned sixteen, midway through her sophomore year of high school. She’d come home carrying the same backpack she’d later carried on her back on her bike ride out of Chris’ life, the same she carried through the woods on this new journey. Father’d died years after Mother—

Aggie: Tell me the story.

Agatha: You already know the story.

Aggie: Tell it again. I need to hear it. We need to hear it.

All those years ago, but still fresh, the fire flash-fried into her subconscious, his charred corpse only conjured there, sure, but a clear image of his body smoldering, unable to rise from his fleshy ashes. A black silhouette stamped as a means of commemoration of his cremation. The truth had meshed with her imagination over the years. “The passing of time immaterial to death, as light is insignificant to night,” she said aloud, looking at the cloudless sky over the farmhouse.

Light is insignificant tonight, little Aggie mused. Jamais vu!

Not a star shined, though there should be countless, the moon no longer winking. There, but not. New. Not until tomorrow would the Cheshire cat begin to smile. The night at this moment stayed as obsidian as Mother’s eyes boring into little Aggie’s in the recurring dream. The black hole hidden in or under or behind to the barn pulling as strong as ever.

“What is it about this place?”

Mother stepping out the window. “Where you going? Mom?”

The same loop repeated forever and ever and EVER!

Falling down / falling up.

Aggie: We already know this story.

Agatha: …

And so she tried to recall the day she’d moved out of the “home” with her father to a foster home with another’s father. The system’d sent her from house to house until she’d turned eighteen (an adult not yet ready to adult) and when old enough to—

Aggie: Earlier than that. Start with the alarm.

Agatha: Fine.

The nine-volt batteries had bled out their lives, one by one. She’d watched her father remove the battery from the alarm in the front entryway, balancing on the penultimate rung of the ladder, beer in hand. She’d wished then for the ladder to tilt, tilt, tilt, but he’d killed the alarm instead of himself, left the plastic compartment dangling. For weeks it stayed that way. The one on the hallway ceiling outside her room started chirping next. This was a few weeks later. It’d chirped in odd intervals, just enough to be annoying. Aggie’d invested time in her geography homework, hours into it when white puck let out a cry.

She’d waited for her father to swear from his semi-permanent spot on the couch in front of the television, then’d forgotten while calculating surface area. Some random moment later the alarm let out another beep, and again she waited. After the third beep, she’d thrown her papers to the side, found her father asleep in the living room surrounded by red and white Budweiser cans. One of his Kools balanced on the very edge of the ashtray, the burning tip over the coffee table.

Aggie’d imagined him holding the wrong end of the cigarette, eyes closed or blurred to the point of seeing in duplicate, then flipping it / them around, lighting one or two or all three, or maybe not realizing he’d lit one or any at all. She’d imagined he’d passed out drunk before ever putting the thing to his lips; three-quarters had burned, ash falling onto a stack of bills spread out over a newspaper. A ring had burned into the latest Chicago Tribune.

They’d moved out west to Illinois after New York had fallen to pieces. Their lives had likewise dispersed to dust, covered in the detritus of surviving in a seemingly post-apocalyptic city. After burying her mother (nothing’s in the coffin, Aggie, just pretend), family friends’d periodically check in to see how her father was doing, how little Aggie was doing. Some had seen the bruises, the marks on her arms, the “signs of troubled youth,” of “domestic violence,” according to the uniformed man. And so they had to go, her father’d said (right now, dammit!) and they had to move out west, maybe to as far as the windy city by the big lakes.

“Dad,” she’d said to the snoring monster on the couch.

No answer.

“Dad!”

Aggie’d shaken his arm, his leg, said his name over and over again (just don’t say it three times) but he was deep in the dark of drunkenness, what some of her friends at school’d called “blackout.” Some of her friends’d achieved that status, but she could never understand why anyone’d ever want to not retain every last detail of life. I don’t even remember anything that happened that night, one would say, as if proud. Woke up the next morning in the bathroom / bed / floor. All their stories similar but different. Anything might’ve happened, but I don’t remember. And Aggie’d be the one with reason to say You could have been raped, always the overly-concerned one, the unpopular, and the girls’d shrug, brag about other things.

Agatha: …

Aggie: The fire.

Agatha: I’m getting there.

She’d shaken him hard. He was alive, then; the snoring’d provided that truth. Aggie’d even slapped his face (not hard, not at first), splashed water on him, but he’d sound-sleepily brushed at his face to ward off the bug crawling over him. “Dad!” she’d yelled, loud as ever.

No answer.

And so she’d slapped him hard as she could across the face. Hard enough to hurt her hand, her wrist. What could father do other than wake out of his fake death in a rage and do the same to her? His face’d moved from one side to the other, but sleep held him. An impression of her hand’d slowly formed on his cheek, as had a smile on little Aggie’s. She’d counted one-thousands, got to thirty- and slapped him again, just as hard, the other cheek this time, and he’d swatted at the hand no longer there. She’d stood over him, then, thought of slitting his throat, and she could do it, too. All the things he’d done to her over the years. How he’d ‘growed her up.’

She’d waited until eleven after nine before making her choice.

Pulling a chair into the hallway, she’d removed the battery from the only other fire alarm in the house, the one beeping incessantly at her door, left the plastic compartment dangling, just as he’d ‘showed her.’

There was enough paperwork on the coffee table beneath the ashtray to catch, and so she’d returned to her father after, bent down and blew him a kiss across the newspaper. The Kool tipped over, then, fell onto the Tribune. The second long kiss’d turned the end of the cigarette orange and spread a flame.

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Aggie: And then?

Agatha: I don’t remember.

Aggie: I don’t either.

“Who’s that?” she asked the night, but she knew.

A man stood in the center of the closest dead field, the setting sun stretching his shadow ever-long. An old man. Very old. The farmer who tends to the crops. He watched her a moment as she watched him, then squatted to the ground to dig into the earth with bare hands.

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The next thing she remembered was the pull at her back, a hard tug. Apparently she’d walked all night, her fingernails raw and earthy. Any farther and her tether would snap, and then what? She’d unburied the “Mother” jar a few more times, it seemed, all of them, for on her way back to the willow-barrier surrounding the farm she came across dozens of piles of rocks. She’d added many new words to the back of her notebook as well. Frantic scribbles in childish handwriting. Mud-fingerprints littered the pages, but the words were there. All of them.

Poetry writes itself.

This was the first morning she’d not hungered, yet the jars remained heavy in her backpack. She held the hammer, the claw caked with dirt. Had she used it to ease her unburying of Mother? Had she cracked any of her jars? Each of the headstones had their own gravity, pulling her toward them as she stumbled barefoot. She fell next to one, moved the rocks.

No, Aggie pleaded, she’s not there!

Agatha set the hammer aside and dug with her fingers, as the farmer had shown her. She expected the hard surface of glass, but as she kept at it, like the fox, she eventually gave up and moved on. Nothing there. No empty jar. No sign of Mother. A part of her knew that under the next pile of rocks she’d find the same. She dug anyway. Nothing there. No empty jar. No sign of Mother. The third miniature grave revealed the same loosened earth and nothing more.

20200408_182345

She read Mother’s poem, over and over again.

This one she wouldn’t lose, wouldn’t offer to the trees.

Men and women and children eased back into the shadows as she made her way to the farm, pulled there. No, not the farm, nor the farmhouse. The barn.

“Mother,” she said.

She had to check that one too.

Her second vacant grave.

She thought of the empty jar in the pantry labeled “forgiveness,” how she’d left it on the shelves. Oliver was there now, and soon his friends, if not already. She knew this somehow, part of the compulsion to return. Compulsion, is that a trait, or a flaw? She had to get back. To the farm. To the crops. To the farmhouse, maybe. To the barn, definitely.

Roll over, Oliver. All over her, Aggie sang in her head, a little made-up ditty. Give ‘all of her’ to Oliver. All over her, Oliver.

He’d find the jar, throw it out, and who wouldn’t?

Empty like Mom’s coffin.                

She neared the willows surrounding the farm, figured this might be her last time here, at the edge of the blade. She looked for Oliver, and for the farmer, but it was still early, perhaps not yet five o’clock, the sun just peeking over the horizon, the dew starting to rise like spirits from the wet earth. And there at the tree line she pulled out her notebook, reflected on The End, wherever or whenever or however that may be, in case this would be the end of her story. She let the poem write itself, as she always had, pulling from the pool, her subconscious. She titled this one “Lest We End” and let the pen do its magic. She inked her father, her mother, her self.

everything burning
encourages upheaval,
all-changing,
affected swiftly sometimes.
and drawn onward,
fragile existences erased effortlessly;
people scared by echoed pain …
no, exhausted!
never odd or even
as chance is questioned,
reflected minds distorted by confused thought,
elegantly damaged
when refracted light of life
            / splits then
                        mirrors
                        ————
                        mirrors
            then splits /

life of light refracted when
damaged elegantly,
thought confused by distorted minds, reflected;
questioned, is chance, as
even or odd, never
exhausted, no …
pain echoed by scared people
effortlessly erased, existences fragile,
onward-drawn, and
sometimes swiftly affected,
changing all;  
upheaval encourages
burning everything.

Agatha tore out the page, folded the paper in half, twice, thrice. She sliced a new slit in the bark of the nearest willow, slid the poem inside where it would rest until its end.

20200408_182301

jars_24

Unnoticed, she returned to the barn. Her barn. Agatha’s Barn. Someone else had been there, so said the ghost footprints in the dirt floor, so said the dust on shelves wiped by hand. Her tent and sleeping bag and everything else she’d left behind were gone. Taken? All the nails she’d pounded into reclaimed wood to repair the place, even the patch she’d made on the roof, they were gone, too. All her repairs. Reversed? No one would do such a thing. She set the hammer down where she’d originally found it, removed her backpack, which seemed lighter.

Someone had disturbed this place, she knew, which made her think of her father, which made her think of her mother buried behind the barn. She went to her. Moved the rock aside. Dug with her fingers, thinking of all she’d put in the empty jar now that she’d revealed / realized the truth. She dug, and dug, and dug …

“Mother,” she said, not finding her.


Agatha’s story continues here:

agathas_barn_logo_pt3


I hope you enjoyed this strange tale, Glenn’s illustrations, and every other piece of writing, art, music, poetry, or what-have-you inspired by Josh Malerman’s Carpenter’s Farm currently (and soon-to-be) popping up around the Internet. Since this pandemic started, I haven’t been able to focus on writing anything other than poetry, so thank you, Josh, for getting me out of this rut! After reading the first four chapters of his novel-in-progress, and Shane Douglas Keene’s chapter-by-chapter corresponding poems, (seriously, read them), I reached out, asked if Josh would mind if I wrote a tie-in short story, he said to go for it, and so I hashed out this story in a single day. I started writing at around noon on a Saturday and multiple drafts / edits by midnight.

But Agatha’s story wasn’t quite finished, and so now there’s a part two, which I finished the following weekend. This story is now over 11,500 words, with a part 3 already in the works. This short story has grown into an novelette, and soon into a novella. Anyway, I hope you’re having as much fun as I am … making the best of things.


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  1. Very creative tale with the poetry and the surrealistic feel. I’m loving Chadbourne’s illustrations, too!

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