AGATHA’S BARN: A CARPENTER’S FARM STORY (part 3)

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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 and Part 2 first. I also I highly recommend catching up on Carpenter’s Farm (the first sixteen or so chapters) before continuing. Josh adds new chapters each Monday, Wednesday & Friday.


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There is The Farmer.

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Agatha supposed if there was a “Mother” jar, there would need to be a “Father” jar buried in the earth. Both her parents had been cremated, she figured, her mother eventually after falling from the city sky, her father while passed out drunk on the couch. Her mother’s soul freed, her father’s imprisoned. Perhaps that explained the pull of the place, the need for his burial, ashes or naught. Not behind the barn next to Mother, though; in one of the fields, forever tilled.

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The jars in her backpack had emptied, her hunger satiated for now, both hers and Aggie’s, but for how long? The Farmer (never the farmer) had shown her how to fill them, and for a while that had been enough. It was only one crop (a single trait), yet there were many surrounding the farmhouse. Acres upon acres. Some dead, some not. She thought of the empty jar labeled “forgiveness” she’d placed in the likewise empty pantry, wondered which crop yielded that ugly harvest. Some things can never be forgiven, daddy, mused her younger self.

“Show me,” Agatha said into the evening, the first words she’d spoken aloud in quite some time, the syllables slicing like nails out her throat. The trees sighed.

She waited behind the willows a while, until the last of the guests arrived, until the farmhouse glowed its golden warmth. Past the barn, the farmhouse and its occupants settled in for the night. The one who’d brought light and life onto the property—Oliver, his name’s Oliver, she knew—hosted a dinner party of sorts. She trailed a long shadow to the barn, until she and her follower stretched out and disappeared, then made her way to the kitchen window.

They’d eaten from the fields, it seemed. Seven empty plates, but eight sat around the table. She found herself wondering about the meal and the single vacant setting when the host stood. He silently spoke, muted by the window, addressing his laughing guests as they changed (drifted) one by one. He pointed out the window to the fields at one point, at / through her. But at this hour, and with the house alight, the view would be a black reflection of themselves.

Agatha’d let herself into the farmhouse after the new owner’d brought in electricity, and while he slept soundly on the couch one night, she’d flipped on the lights in the kitchen, staring out that same window, at / through the Farmer who both was and wasn’t there, at / through the black reflection of herself.

Like liquid glass, like mama’s eyes before bed, before—

One of the women seemed to sense a shape in the corner of the room, then didn’t, then said something as everyone around her laughed (rather) hysterically; the spectral old man flicker-shifted behind one of the chairs between the woman and the stove. No one paid her reaction to this much notice as an invisible string, a knot of black yarn, pulled Agatha closer to the window. Then the apparition was gone.

The woman who’d seen The Farmer, the only one who’d seen him, or thought she’d seen him, looked out at Agatha, or at herself, then sat. One at a time the guests fell asleep as Oliver continued his story. They slumped in their chairs, fell against plates, while some yawned and went off to bed on their own or were led. Then the host left the room as the old (so very old) man entered the kitchen by way of the living room, hat shielding his eyes, there then not there. His wrinkled chin, did it hide a smile? Could the woman see him too, shimmering in and out of existence? Oliver helped the rest of his guests to their rooms, all but one, and returned holding out a jar to the startled woman.

“Forgiveness,” the label read.

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“Show me,” Agatha said again, but she was alone outside the farmhouse. The Farmer inside the house tugged her to follow. The others’d all gone to bed, their bellies full. She waited for hours / forever / for no time at all as the lights winked out and the stars winked in. She slid open the kitchen window as she had before, levered herself inside. The hammer clanked against the sill.

Inside the pantry she found the forgiveness jar, still empty, among several others. The rest were unlabeled, at least half-filled with shades of greens and yellows. Peppers? Lettuces? Grass? Weeds? She twisted off their lids, smelled odorless nothing; tasteless maybe. Below her, within the pantry door, dirty-bare footprints faced the opposite direction like those she’d tracked along the floor—much larger versions of the bare feet she’d stamped with spit on chalkboards as a child, kissed by wet soil instead. She turned, placed her own feet inside these larger two, closed the door, imagined the dinner party from this vantage point as she peered between slats.

Upstairs, a bed creaked from someone’s restless slumber, not from the other kind of creaking, though two here were obviously a pair and shared sheets, sleeping in lieu of slinking sex. Agatha stayed there, listening to the ancient house moan for its occupants. Breathing with new life. A semi-regular drip of water from the kitchen sink. Old mattress springs. Square nails pulled through old wood. Shutters pushed against siding by breeze. The sounds of settling.

She went up the staircase, each step flexing. With every door ajar she easily pushed them open. Old hinges quietly argued. She found the guests atop their sheets, bodies toppled, as if out before any heads ever hit pillows, simply tossed and crumpled there. Agatha ran her sullied fingers through the hair of a younger woman before covering her with a blanket. Her perfume smelled of jasmine. In another room, a man drooled, faintly snoring. His heavy breath reminded her of Chris. Agatha held the hammer over him, clenched the handle. In another, she found a couple not in bed together but on bed together, fully clothed and bodies askew, the woman’s hand across his neck. His arms outstretched and touching the headboard as if dragged there, legs dangling over the bed. The last room, Carpenter’s room, was empty, and in the adjacent bathroom a sliver of dancing yellow light fluttered under the door. Candlelight.

If she opened that door, she knew she’d find him staring into the bathroom mirror, perhaps staring through his reflection and out the window to the barn.

“What’s in the barn?” Agatha whispered.

The Farmer is there; there is The Farmer.

And then she sensed him standing behind her. The last hint of his shadow curved around the corner, and she followed him down the staircase, following the ghost-impressions his toes and heels pressed into the carpet, the stairs pushing back only her footsteps. The front door stood wide open as a few curled leaves fluttered inside. She made out the last of his shadow as he disappeared into the dark.

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“Show me,” she said.

The black yarn pulled harder, tugging her along, first toward the barn (yes, show me what’s in / under / around / what secret is there?) where she’d sheltered before the woods, where she’d changed, but he abruptly turned, bringing her to a far field and she could only follow his pull to the (dead field, Aggie mused) tilled field. Light of a waxing half-moon led the way.

Leaves tumbled and rustled delicately under her bare feet. She bent down and inspected one, rubbed the charred thing between fingers, turning them dark. Burnt. Some fell from the sky and landed on her shoulder. Smoke pushed against her as she made her way deep into the field, and she lost track of time, walking for minutes / hours / days / ad infinitum. And then the yarn spooled out of her completely, a sudden slack sending her reeling, almost tumbling over.

In the distance, at the edge, an entire willow torched the sky and crackled laughter. The Farmer stood in front of it, a black silhouette against brightest orange.

This is a dream, little Aggie considered, a vision. Agatha considered as well.

Ash fell from the sky as the ball of light roared, embers flying erratically away from its center as fireflies. The memories came in flame-flashes: Mother’s last call, the dial tone screaming at her father to hang up the damn phone, the sound of glass breaking in the background just before, just before Mom’d— and the planes silently erupting like yeast blooms on the screen, the great and slow falling, one and then the next, an entire city covered in a gray powder, people running, screaming, covering mouths so as not to breathe the dead; others running in to the chaos, perhaps for one last breath. Everyone suddenly the same color.

Then little Aggie blowing Kool ash across her father’s newspaper, catching the bills, the curtains, the couch, the house. Agatha fell to her knees. Hands planted in the ground—

rubble unable to cling to root
and soot attempting to—

All the memories there, all at once.

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Thoughts shifted to her childhood home and watching it burn: standing in the middle of the road as it rained, emergency lights flashing red and blue against the wet asphalt like some kind of party or stage or concert, a fireman’s hand heavy on her shoulder, and “The father’s still inside,” one neighbor is saying and “Was your father inside?” asks another in uniform and little Aggie’d nods then, not crying, just nodding all calm like, free from the monster at last, but to be haunted forever thereafter, and finally not-so-little-Aggie says “Yes,” that he was / is in there.

Agatha’d wished for a harder rain to put out the fire then, as she wished for it now to extinguish the tree. Had she fallen to her knees all those years ago, fingernails scraping the road? Part of her remembered the tips of her fingers bleeding and later bandaged, and part of her remembered not being there at all, hearing of her father’s death over the phone instead: There’s been an accident. She ran her fingers through the soil, the field recently ploughed or cultivated or whatever the process was called. Her hands came away ashy. Digging through death.

Bodies, she imagined, countless cremains tilled into the earth. If she dug long enough in the human dust she’d find tiny bones, a tooth, or

The Farmer kept his back to her as he watched the last of the tree burn.

No, not a tree at all, Agatha realized, wiping her eyes. A bonfire of yard trimmings or other once-living things. Limbs, Aggie mused.

She nourished the ground with her tears, and soon after a light rain fell, and soon after a heavier rain, and soon after the pile smoldered and flattened until gone. Gone like The Farmer. The Farmer is there. There is The Farmer. He’d led her to this place to remember, to watch it all burn (again) and he had left her there …

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She couldn’t remember how or when she’d returned to the farmhouse, but found herself once again staring at her reflection the kitchen window before climbing inside. Words wanted out of her, but she hadn’t brought her backpack (left just outside the barn), only the hammer hanging through a belt loop, and so she removed a worn copy of The Andromeda Strain from the bookshelf in the living room and flipped past the last page, snagged a pen from the end table.

If anyone wants to find this one, she figured, they’ll have to read to the end.

All the lights were off upstairs, and so she sat on the couch where she’d watched the new owner of the farm sleep not so long ago. She let the new poem write itself, frantically, one that apparently wanted out of her called “Loosed Earth,” though she kept the title to herself.

A burning world
prays yearning for rain
during a pained drought
no doubt which comes
too late for some
to extinguish last hotspots
brought upon past soft plots
sending a simmering ground
glimmering with ash-mud
to slip-slide the sides
in scare-rides
not meant for women
nor men or children
caught mixed in the crud
in fraught games of chance
to play in avalanches of unstable
rubble unable to cling to root
and soot attempting to
hold a cold and crumbling
foundation together
and will this never end
or go on forever
as the terrible
treble-tremble sings
a sad ensemble
of oversaturated help
to sated gods
devoid of love
bringing new horrors
for hours or forever
as those coerced
to flee are freed
then forced to plea
on frayed knees
praying for heat
in dry pouts      
as they cry out
for fires to mask the floods …

He’s here, Aggie told her.

The old man sat across from her in a chair. Suddenly there, as if listening to her thoughts and the unspoken poem. Agatha let her eyes adjust as she closed the book, taking in general shapes and outlines. Blacks becoming grays. He stared at the floor or at his boots, the brim of his hat pulled down to cover all but his insufferably wrinkled chin. He rocked gently, or so the sparse light revealed. Three of his fingers pattered against the cushion, thah-ta-tat, thah-ta-tat, thah-ta-tat, like an unsteady heartbeat, which soon matched her own, then he switched to two fingers creating a softer, slower forty-beats-per-minute. Leather hands pruned and liver-spotted.

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Primeval: a hundred years old or a thousand. Definitely dressed for the part in this strange play. She imagined a stalk of wheat sticking out of his mouth, toothless but gnawing at the end of it, or putting a match to a corn pipe to light up the rest of his face. He’d worked this land countless seasons, had tended countless crops. An old gunslinger without any guns. He’s making the sound of a steady soft pattering rain, she realized.

“Who are you?” she asked.

He either sighed or took in and soundlessly released a breath; otherwise, his shape didn’t move. Maybe he wasn’t there at all. Maybe she wasn’t there at all. Maybe they both—

“Well, I’m Agatha,” she said. “But you know that already, don’t you?”

The old man didn’t say anything, simply sat there.

“I stayed in your barn a few days,” she said, “tried to repair it after the last storm, but the barn doesn’t seem to want to be repaired. Wants to stay worn and weathered, maybe.”

Agatha stood, returned the book to its proper shelf, not afraid to turn around, but not willing to either, and when she did he was gone, or the thought of him there had passed. The beat he’d made on the arms of the chair remained as a prattle against the windows.

“What’s in the barn?” she asked the room.

The room didn’t respond.

Again, she was alone.

No, not alone.

She sat in the living room a long while, waiting for him to return. She even sat in his chair, watching for him on the couch where she’d sat talking to him … or talking to no one.

The sky lightened a shade of gray before she decided to leave. But first she ripped out a blank page from some mystery novel, one of the end pages. She transcribed Mother’s poem from memory—rising up from the ashes and all that—then she slipped the paper in the forgiveness jar in the pantry and made her way to the barn to visit that empty grave.

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“I forgive you,” Agatha told the headstone. ‘Mother’ the rock read when she flipped it over. She used the claw end of the hammer to loosen the already loosened earth beneath it. She’s not there, Aggie insisted, just like last time, but her older self dug anyway. Careful not to break any glass (not there, not there), she tossed the hammer aside, used her fingers to scrape the (asphalt) dirt.

“She’s not here,” Agatha said aloud. “And he’s not here, either.”

The Farmer was elsewhere, tending to his crops.

“But I forgive you, Mother,” she said, “for leaving me behind, for leaving me with the man who did this,” she said, attempting to imply her entire being, “and for all the things you let him do to me in your absence. I forgive you for dying. I forgive you for your cartwheels out the window. I forgive you for calling me to say goodbye to me first, then asking for him. What did you need to say to him? Why did you have to go in to work at all that day? Was it mandatory, or did you climb up your tower to get away from—” (daddy, chimed in Aggie) “—the man who was supposed to be my father, from the man who beat you? I saw the bruises makeup couldn’t hide. I saw the fear in your eyes when he’d say your name. But I forgive you (, mama).”

She’s not anywhere, not now, she’s everywhere; ashes caught in the wind.

Agatha kept digging, eager to find her mother’s empty jar, but when her fingers passed through the soft plot—

to extinguish last hotspots
brought upon past soft plots

—her fingers grated across rusty metal. She pushed away the dirt, dug around the dented cylinder: an old red coffee tin, Folgers, buried a good foot below the place where Mother’s jar should be. She knew what she’d find inside this one and unearthed the container. It had once held coffee grounds, sure, then later a secret Mason jar labeled “freedom” in Sharpie over a tear of duct tape, which she’d stashed in the garage (hidden in plain sight, right there in the open), and inside that jar the cash she’d used to leave Chris. Not a lot, but enough.

And somehow she found it buried in this spot (a hundred years ago, a thousand) based on its condition, the ground around it hard as cement. Once again Agatha swung the claw end of the hammer, chipped away at the rocks and pried them out like the decapitated heads of nails. It took much effort, but she managed to pull out the coffee tin without damaging it much. A heavy thing. Five or six pounds, an impossible weight for what should be inside: four hundred thirty-two dollars in collected small bills: mostly ones and fives, a few tens and twenties, a couple dollar coins. She’d already spent about half that amount. The plastic lid had all but disintegrated.

Before tipping out the contents, she searched her backpack next to the barn. The small zipper pouch held a wad the cash and some change, all accounted for, making her question, “the fuck?” out of her discovery. She ran her filthy fingers through her hair (the woman in the house, Aggie imagined). She stared at the Folgers tin, kicked it over. A soft rattle as it rolled. She stared at the barn doors, went in, closed herself inside.

Moonlight striped the interior with bars of light, as it had before (a cell, Agatha imagined, she its prisoner but now able to let herself out). The roof unrepaired. The swing doors not reinforced with salvaged wood. No pity nails nor any others holding everything in place. The latch was there, however, which she shot into place like the rifle bolt, the sound comforting—similar to the sound of the blunt end of the hammer headstone-tipping a skull—

sending a simmering ground
glimmering with ash-mud

—and someone had taken her tent, her sleeping bag, and everything else she’d left behind before going into the woods (or had put them away, brought inside the farmhouse, perhaps), but she’d known that, and that was alright, but whoever’d done so hadn’t taken the Blanton’s. The bottle waited for her next to the paint cans, covered and nearly unrecognizable by anything other than its unique shape by a thick layer of farm dust. The whiskey tempted her like some kind of midlevel and oversized tincture or potion. She rubbed away the grime with her shirt, expecting her own name to be handwritten on its label. She pulled off the horse stopper (running away, running away), took a whiff, then took a long swig. What her father’d called a long ‘pull.’

“Some things never spoil,” she said to the burn. “Others spoil quickly.”

A demon swiveled its head on the ground, then, an elongated shadow nearly her own height with two horns and hunched shoulders. Agatha spun around, only to find an owl perched atop the largest gap in the ceiling, admiring her. A Barn Owl, she figured. Both the owl and its shadow stretched out a wide set of wings, which ruffled, then settled.

Below the creature lay a pile of round pellets a little larger than the size of ping-pong balls. As a child, little Aggie’d look for them in the woods under trees, excited every time she’d find one. She’d pry open their tight woven-basket-like structures, pulling out the white skulls of mice and gophers or whatever the owl’d not digested and’d spat back out. Owls swallowed their meals whole, she’d read, which’d always fascinated her, for she’d also learned the hard truth that life could sometimes do that to you—could swallow you whole and spit you out.

This particular owl craned its head curiously as Aggie made her way below it. She knelt next to the pellet pyramid, a reflected glint of silver catching her eye. She pried open one the size of a walnut, a tiny spherical ribcage (could be, Aggie, she told her younger self), and tore at that chest until it snapped apart. In the center, among partial jaws and teeth and claws of rodents, Agatha found the bones of a coiled finger barely held together by cartilage. Metatarsals of a ring finger. And loosely around it, a cheap silver band much like her father’s wedding ring.

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“This can’t be his,” she said and the owl fluttered off, “he’s—”Mine, the engraving read.

and will this never end
or go on forever

—as the barn doors rattled, but only because of the wind. She convinced herself of that anyway, warding off the thought of her father’s charbroiled hands (nine of his ten fingers, at least) pushing against the wood from the other side, trying not to worry (for there’s no jar for that) that they wanted to wrap around her neck and squeeze.

                                                / flash

“Is there anything you want to keep of his?” a uniformed woman’d asked her, pointing at the plastic Ziploc baggie. Inside: a blackened pocket watch, an untarnished silver ring. She’d imagined then, only a fifteen-year-old midway through her sophomore year of high school and on her own, how the coroner’d had to’ve cut off that finger to get to the ring prior to her father’s second cremation. His ashes would weigh five or six pounds, she’d read, the average weight of a man’s cremains. And little Aggie’d pointed to the ring, then, which’d either been cleaned or had gone unscathed. Not to keep as a remembrance of who he was (and what he’d done, both to her, and to Mother), but as a reminder of what he’d become: dead. The thought of the coroner clipping off his finger with pruning shears had brought upon her plenty of nightmares—

                                                / flash

Open this goddamn door, Aggie! Only in her head. Only in our head, Aggie.

She left the ring there, in the pile of bones, and took another long swig (pull) of the Blanton’s. A shadow moved from one side of the gap under the door to the other, the sound of footsteps over soil. The shadow moved from the front to the side of the barn as holes (once-tough knots) in the wood blocked the flashlight-like beams of moonlight by the smooth motion.

Agatha slid the bolt, another round expelled, and ran after whoever or whatever waited out in the dark for her to follow. She screamed, “What do you want with me!” as she threw open the doors, not as a question but as a command. “Show me!”

The rock above the grave had been kicked over to its unpainted side, the coffee can now upright. Someone had flipped over the rock. Someone had righted the tin. Bare footprints led the way, then disappeared as though whoever’d made them had floated off into the heavens.

Agatha fell to her knees. She scraped what she could out of the old coffee tin, and let the jar slide into her hand, chilled, heavy as a river rock. This one labeled “freedom,” the same jar from her garage but not. And not empty. More than money inside. Another kind of freedom.

She unscrewed the lid, stuck her finger in cremains—

rubble unable to cling to root
and soot attempting to
hold a cold and crumbling
foundation together   

—and knew what to do with her father. The last of the bare footprints pressed into the loosed earth around her resembled those in the kitchen pantry. She stood and placed her own feet within them, making footprints within footprints. They pointed the way: toward the crops. She imagined her younger self doing the same, stepping into them as she stepped away, three sets of layered footprints left behind. And she imagined little Aggie and Agatha and The Farmer all walking to the fields as one, holding a freedom jar full of ashes.

Perhaps someone might find their triple set of footprints, then using the back of their hand create a fourth (baby feet, left behind in the world like baby teeth) and push holes into the dirt with a finger to create toes. Perhaps someone thirsty would find the last of the Blanton’s.

Agatha kicked over Mother’s headstone. Instead of ‘Mother’ painted like dried blood against the rock, someone had painted over the word with a single fat stroke of black. The new white lettering over it spelled ‘father.’

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A light in the farmhouse flicked to life.

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There was something more in the barn, but not Agatha’s turn for that revelation, for the pull of the place had once again changed. She knew where to go, as if led by lead rope. With the handle of the hammer slid into her belt loop, she made her way past the farmhouse and to the field where she’d had the dream or vision of the burn. No smoke this time, and no leaves tumbling by way of the wind, and no fireflies buzzing about, but she found the field easy enough. No raging fire, either. Just an empty dirt lot recently tilled and carved into neat rows.

The Farmer waited in the middle, suddenly there, his shadow long.

Most of his ancient face hid under the brim of his hat.

“Show me,” Agatha said.

And he did.

He dragged behind him a long-handled shovel as he walked, splitting the earth, and she followed him through the field, but on her hands and knees. She dug her own paths next to him with the claw end of her hammer. After making a few trenches he’d circle back, reach into the leather seed bag at his side and bend down to drop in a few, then use the side of his foot to bury them, and Agatha’d circle back, reach into the jar of ashes (a jar of bones, really), then use her hand to do the same, wondering What will grow here? and wondering How have I grown?

The night drew infinitely long, the half-moon frozen above them as massive battleship storm clouds gathered in the obsidian sea, readying for war. Some fired warning-shot thunder, strobing the night in foamy-frothy waves. Some leaked their invisible wounds.

“What comes next,” she asked when her jar emptied.

Agatha stood directly in front of him, and he directly in front of her, a foot apart. She could reach out and touch his ever-brittle body, could possibly push her finger right through. And if he reached out to her, what would he feel? How brittle was she now, having been out here on her own for days / for weeks / for however-long?

She thought of the owl swallowing the finger then later spitting out its pellet. She thought of the ring, the engraving. She thought of the barn, and what might be hidden there. She thought of the farmhouse, of the dinner party, and wondered what they ate, and how that’d changed them. And she wondered likewise what she’d eaten these last few days from her jars, and how she’d changed. So many labels. So many—

Mother and her forgiveness jar; father and his freedom jar.

The later had also gotten Agatha out of her bind with Chris, filled with money, though, not with ash, and oh how the two of them were so alike both in life and in death, how one had taught her how to take care of the next, the 16-penny nails sometimes taking five or six swings to bury flush into the wood, but without the nails and without the wood a single swing’s all it took, a perfect-round little splash. Good, Aggie, like that; like that, Agatha, good.

She’d asked The Farmer to show her, and he’d shown her proper, but now what?

Agatha stared into her empty glass jar; without saying anything, The Farmer (never the farmer) stared into his empty leather satchel the same. A hundred years old or a thousand, he lifted her chin with his wrinkled old hand, soft as tissue—lift your head up, the gentle gesture implied—and he smiled beneath the brim of his hat, all crooked-like.

The blinding white of his starlight eyes pulled her in deep.

jars_32

There is The Farmer.


Agatha’s story continues here:

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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 Part 1 in a single day; I started writing at around noon on a Saturday and multiple drafts / edits by midnight. The next weekend I wrote Part 2, and the following weekend Part 3.

This story is now over 16,500 words, with a part 4 in consideration. This story seems to be growing into a novella. Anyway, I hope you’re having as much fun as I am … making the best of things.


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