Archive for the ‘ Horror ’ Category

THE IMPOSSIBLE WEIGHT OF LIFE – $0.99

My most recent collection, The Impossible Weight of Life, is on sale for less than a buck on @AmazonKindle in the US and UK. Snag it here: https://amzn.to/2XIuQBA (US), or here: https://amzn.to/2XGiR7F (UK). This is me, flipped upside-down, dissected, and put on display.

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An autobiographical collection of speculative fiction and poetry by Michael Bailey. Contains Bram Stoker Award-nominated short stories such as “I Will Be the Reflection Until the End” and “Time Is a Face on the Water,” but also never-before-published mind-benders created during his “highly-medicated” state of recovery, including a story about memory loss called “Fragments of Br_an,” (composed on a typewriter that no longer exists, now ash), “Emergence of the Colorless,” a statement about the beginning of the end of prejudice, and the far future “Oll Korrect,” in which artificial intelligence is used to explore humankind. As for poetry, there are favorites such as “Loosed Earth” and “Shades of Red,” but many new poems to help with balance, including “Hurt People Hurt People,” “Night Rainbows,” and “Paper Earth.”

AmazoneBook | trade paperback | hardcover. Also available in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan, and Kindle Unlimited where available.

Barnes & Nobletrade paperback | hardcover

Books-A-Million (BAM!)trade paperback | hardcover

FREE HOLIDAY E-BOOKS!

Free e-Book Holiday

Midnight Dec. 24th through midnight Dec. 28th, the following are available as free downloads for Amazon Kindle. This is a sampling of work by Michael Bailey: short fiction & poetry (including illustrations by Daniele Serra), a composite novel, and themed long fiction. Fill up your Kindle. They’re free!

Trade paperback and hardcover editions are also available.

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INKBLOTS AND BLOOD SPOTS, a painfully beautiful collection of short stories and poetry by Michael Bailey that reaches deep into the imagination, breaking hearts and boundaries along the way. Features an introduction by Douglas E. Winter, and illustrations and cover artwork by Daniele Serra;. This book was originally published by Villipede Publications. This second edition is now published by Written Backwards.

AmazoneBook trade paperback | hardcover. Also available in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan, and a part of Kindle Unlimited where available.

Barnes & Nobletrade paperback | hardcover

Books-A-Million (BAM!)trade paperback | hardcover

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PHOENIX ROSE, a composite novel. Michael Bailey returns to the strange town of Brenden, Washington to expand the events of Palindrome Hannah. A family is torn apart after a horse foaling goes terribly wrong; a sickly man recounts getting mauled by his neighbor’s dog; an undead priest is reborn into the world a hundred-fifty years after his untimely death; two brothers run for their lives through a dead field of wheat. Holding all of this together is a young boy named Todd, whose survival pivots on the balance of life and death, and a deranged mental patient with a burnt rose tattoo, whose reality is paradoxical. Cover artwork by Michael Ian Bateson.

AmazoneBook | trade paperback | hardcover. Also available in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan, and a part of Kindle Unlimited where available.

Barnes & Nobletrade paperback | hardcover 

Books-A-Million (BAM!)trade paperback | hardcover

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00094]

OVERSIGHT, a themed collection of two novelettes and a short story by Michael Bailey. Includes “Darkroom” and “SAD Face” (novelettes), and “Fade to Black” (short story).

AmazoneBook | trade paperback | hardcover. Also available in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan, and Kindle Unlimited where available.

Barnes & Nobletrade paperback | hardcover

Books-A-Million (BAM!)trade paperback | hardcover

THE IMPOSSIBLE WEIGHT OF E-BOOKS

Starting midnight on Friday the 13th (November 13, 2020) through midnight the 20th, The Impossible Weight of Life eBook is on sale at Amazon for only $1.99 in the US, and £1.99 in the UK. Also available in hardcover and trade paperback.

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AVAILABLE NOW – THE IMPOSSIBLE WEIGHT OF LIFE

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Written Backwards presents The Impossible Weight of Life, a painfully autobiographical collection of speculative fiction and poetry by Michael Bailey, author of previous collections such as Scales and Petals, Inkblots and Blood Spots, and Oversight. Available now wherever books are sold!

Amazon: eBook | trade paperback | hardcover. Also available in the UK, Canada, AustraliaGermany, FranceItaly, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan, and Kindle Unlimited where available.

Barnes & Noble: trade paperback | hardcover

Books-A-Million (BAM!): trade paperback | hardcover

Fiction:

  • Time is a Face on the Water
  • Speaking Cursive
  • Ghosts of Calistoga
  • Möbius
  • The Long White Line
  • Hourglass
  • The Other Side of Semicolons
  • Gave
  • Essential Oils
  • Fragments of Br_an
  • I Will Be the Reflection Until the End
  • Emergence of the Colorless
  • Oll Korrect

Poetry:

  • Loosed Earth
  • Hurt People Hurt People
  • Life (C)remains
  • Lest We End
  • Past the Past
  • Blink
  • Sands of Time
  • Shades of Red
  • Who Will Teach Them?
  • The Nocturnal Waking Nightmare
  • Paper Earth
  • Apanthropy
  • Night Rainbows

TIWOL - Cover

THE IMPOSSIBLE WEIGHT OF LIFE

TIWOL - Cover

Written Backwards presents The Impossible Weight of Life, a painfully autobiographical collection of speculative fiction and poetry by Michael Bailey, author of previous collections such as Scales and Petals, Inkblots and Blood Spots, and Oversight.

Release date: October 13th, 2020.

Amazon: eBook | trade paperback | hardcover. Also available in the UK, Canada, AustraliaGermany, FranceItaly, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan, and Kindle Unlimited where available.

Barnes & Noble: trade paperback | hardcover

Books-A-Million (BAM!): trade paperback | hardcover

This time around, after an imbalanced world temporarily destroyed his vestibular system and flipped life upside-down (thanks to an extended bout of a strange condition called Bilateral Loss of Labyrinthine Function), literally burned to the ground during California wildfires, then became threatened after rising from the ashes by acts of school violence, a flood, further fire evacuations, prolonged power outages, multiple uprootings, social injustice, political unrest, and finally a global pandemic, he decided it’s time to bend the boundaries of the written word once more, in case, you know, the world rolls itself off the giant scale that balances life and death to end things once and for all.

This collection contains Bram Stoker Award-nominated short stories such as “I Will Be the Reflection Until the End” and “Time Is a Face on the Water,” but also never-before-published mind-benders created during his “highly-medicated” state of recovery, including a story about memory loss called “Fragments of Br_an,” (composed on a typewriter that no longer exists, now ash), “Emergence of the Colorless,” a statement about the beginning of the end of prejudice, and the far future “Oll Korrect,” in which artificial intelligence is used to explore humankind. As for poetry, there are favorites such as “Loosed Earth” and “Shades of Red,” but many new poems to help with balance, including “Hurt People Hurt People,” “Night Rainbows,” and “Paper Earth.”

Fiction:

  • Time is a Face on the Water
  • Speaking Cursive
  • Ghosts of Calistoga
  • Möbius
  • The Long White Line
  • Hourglass
  • The Other Side of Semicolons
  • Gave
  • Essential Oils
  • Fragments of Br_an
  • I Will Be the Reflection Until the End
  • Emergence of the Colorless
  • Oll Korrect

Poetry:

  • Loosed Earth
  • Hurt People Hurt People
  • Life (C)remains
  • Lest We End
  • Past the Past
  • Blink
  • Sands of Time
  • Shades of Red
  • Who Will Teach Them?
  • The Nocturnal Waking Nightmare
  • Paper Earth
  • Apanthropy
  • Night Rainbows

Available for pre-order now.

CHIRAL MAD 5 – UPDATE!

CHIRAL MAD 5

Chiral Mad 5 will include at least 15 stories and 15 poems, or around 90,000 words (but will most likely include more, depending on the success of this campaign, probably closer to 100,000).

The campaign officially ended August 30th, 2020 at 11:59pm PDT, so pre-orders are now on hold until sometime in the beginning of 2020, perhaps around February. Those who pre-ordered directly through the campaign will receive the book a few months prior to publication.

Chiral Mad 5 will be released in eBook, trade paperback, trade hardcover, and in a special deluxe signed & numbered hardcover limited to only 100 copies (only available through the campaign). For updates on the project, click here.

Here’s an update on the Table of Contents so far (with more on the way):

Fiction

  • “Seeds” by J. Federle
  • “What Is Lost in the Smoke” by Laura Blackwell
  • “Impressions of a Vizard-Mask, Surrounding the Great Troubles of 1907” by Emily Cataneo
  • “Persistence” by Jonathan Lees
  • “Feeling Like a Big Kid at the End of the Beginning” by Paul Michael Anderson
  • “Tears That Never Stain” by Jessica May Lin
  • “The Drunken Tree” by Tonya Liburd
  • “The Queen of Talley’s Corner” by Gary A. Braunbeck
  • “Sable’s Bestiary for Those Who Remain” by Hailey Piper
  • “Redstarts in the Last Summer” by Vajra Chandrasekera
  • “Ancestries” by Sheree Renée Thomas
  • “Elevator” by Michael Paul Gonzalez
  • “I’m Not Sam” by Jack Ketchum & Lucky McKee (paperback / hardback only)

Poetry

  • “Backspace Is a Language In Our Dreams” / “Every Day Can’t Be April” by Nnadi Samuel
  • “Chasing the Serpent” by Marge Simon
  • “Dark Neighborhood” by Cindy O’Quinn
  • “Corpuscular” / “Absence” / “Chalk” by Shane Douglas Keene
  • “The Infinite Lives of the Little Match Girl” by Christina Sng
  • “Seasonal Meat” by Jamal Hodge
  • “Asphyxia” by Maxwell I. Gold
  • “Magmatic” by LH Moore
  • “Yesterday at 1:53 p.m.” by B.E. Scully
  • “Spectacular Degeneration” by Zoje Stage
  • “Colorblind” by Wrath James White

More announcements are on the way.

CHIRAL MAD 5

CHIRAL MAD 5 – 100% FUNDED!

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Chiral Mad 5 is now 100% funded! The work sought out and also submitted for consideration so far has been incredible, and more work is on the way. The book will include at least 80,000 words of fiction by writers from around the world, as well as poetry and artwork. This will be the most diverse, most powerful anthology Written Backwards has ever created. Thank you for all your support!

If you’re even considering snagging a copy of Chiral Mad 5, I highly suggest pre-ordering a copy through the campaign in one of it’s many formats: eBook, trade paperback, trade hardcover, and in a special deluxe signed & numbered hardcover that is limited to only 100 copies. Pre-order through the campaign, and you will get your copy well before the general public.

Since we reached 100% funding early in the campaign (with about a month and a half to go), we are now releasing unlock goals. Basically, as new funding goals are met from campaign backers, more contributions will be included in the anthology. This means a thicker volume of work for you to enjoy, and the ability to pay more writers of underrepresented demographics professional rates for their work.

So, here’s the next campaign goal, and what that will include:

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When the campaign reaches 115% funding, or $5,750, two more short stories and two more poems will be included in the anthology, or equivalent up to 10,000 words of fiction and two additional poems, thus paying 4 additional contributors professional rates for their work. When Unlock #1 is reached, Unlock #2 will be revealed, so stay tuned …

The Table of Contents so far includes:

Fiction

  • “The Queen of Talley’s Corner” by Gary A. Braunbeck
  • “Sable’s Bestiary for Those Who Remain” by Hailey Piper
  • “Redstarts in the Last Summer” by Vajra Chandrasekera
  • “Ancestries” by Sheree Renée Thomas
  • “Elevator” by Michael Paul Gonzalez
  • “I’m Not Sam” by Jack Ketchum & Lucky McKee (print editions only)

Poetry

  • “The Infinite Lives of the Little Match Girl” by Christina Sng
  • “Seasonal Meat” by Jamal Hodge
  • “Asphyxia” by Maxwell I. Gold
  • “Magmatic” by LH Moore
  • “Yesterday at 1:53 p.m.” by B.E. Scully
  • “Spectacular Degeneration” by Zoje Stage
  • “Colorblind” by Wrath James White
  • “Seven Symptoms of the End/Beginning/End/Beginning…” by Linda D. Addison

More announcements are on the way.

CHIRAL MAD 5

CHIRAL MAD 5

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The campaign for Chiral Mad 5 is now live, its primary focus to raise awareness and money for underrepresented demographics around the literary world. All profit from the book will go Black Lives Matter, indefinitely. Donate what you can and get some amazing books. Let’s listen. Let’s react. You can find it here (or click any image).

Also, for the next 60 days, all Written Backwards titles purchased as add-ons through the campaign will go to the cause. Let’s change things.

Previous Written Backwards anthologies have always included emerging talent alongside known names in the industry, spanning short fiction, long fiction, graphic adaptations, poetry, and artwork, and ranging from dark science-fiction and fantasy to horror; all things speculative.

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The End Is the Beginning / The Beginning Is the End

That’s the theme for the fifth and perhaps final volume in the Chiral Mad series by Written Backwards. This anthology will be edited by Michael Bailey, recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, Bram Stoker Award, and a Shirley Jackson Award nominee. Is this the beginning of the end for Written Backwards, or will this be the end to a new beginning? You get to help decide. And while we’re at it, we are going to raise some serious funds for Black Lives Matter, and represent the underrepresented in the literary world. It’s time to listen.

For this latest chiral dance, the focus is diversity. Past anthologies have slowly improved over the years in this area, with effort always made to find new voices in the literary world, but that has not been enough. We need to hit the world harder. We need to better represent the underrepresented. We need to listen to those voices screaming out. For this fifth act in the series, we are reaching out to places like Botswana, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Japan; basically, as far out as we can reach, all over the world, with an emphasis on highlighting underrepresented demographics.

And this time around Written Backwards is asking for your help, both monetarily and to shine light upon new and emerging writers and artists who need to be heard at this important time, those who are otherwise not-so-relatively-known but should be. To do that, we are going back to the roots of what originally launched this small press off the ground: charity. Click here to see the campaign. (or keep reading).

The first Chiral Mad focused on bringing awareness to Down syndrome and raised over $6,000 for various charities, with all work donated, and with all proceeds going to organizations such as the Down Syndrome Information Alliance (DSIA). Chiral Mad 2 paid professional rates to contributors, and profit then went to charity, but didn’t raise nearly as much for the greater good. And both Chiral Mad 3 and Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations were not designed to support charity. This time around, Chiral Mad 5 will pay professional rates to contributors of underrepresented demographics, with all proceeds (everything but the cost to initially create the book) going to Black Lives Matter, indefinitely.

If you have a problem with that, there’s an X at the top right of your screen you can click, or simply throw your phone across the room if that’s what you’re using to read this.

Here’s what we are hoping to accomplish with this not-for-profit project:

  • Support and bring awareness to the Black Lives Matter movement
  • Raise as much money as humanly possible for that cause
  • Create an incredibly diverse anthology of fiction, poetry, and artwork
  • Bring underrepresented talent to the limelight
  • Pay professional rates to that talent
  • Not make money off this anthology whatsoever (other than for the charity)
  • Promote change inside and out of the literary world

The goal is to keep overall cost minimal. More well-known writers invited to the anthology (there are some big names already attached) will be asked to forego payment to keep cost down. Contributors of underrepresented demographics, however, will be offered professional payment (6 cents per word for fiction, a dollar per line for poetry), but may donate their work in lieu of payment if they so choose.

Also, all Written Backwards titles purchased as add-ons during this campaign (60 days) will benefit this campaign to help raise money for the cause, with no profit made by the editor or publisher whosoever.

So, what are you waiting for? Check out the campaign and support however you can, even if that’s simply sharing it.

Chiral Mad 5 will be available in deluxe signed / numbered hardcover, trade hardcover, trade paperback, and eBook. More information is available in the campaign.

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AGATHA’S BARN: A CARPENTER’S FARM STORY (part 5)

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Welcome back to Agatha’s Barn, a serial novella 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, Part 3, Part 4 first. I also I highly recommend catching up on Carpenter’s Farm before continuing. Josh adds new chapters each Monday, Wednesday & Friday.

This may be the end of Agatha’s story, but maybe not …


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Not the same barn, Agatha thought, at least at first, but how could that be? The swing doors had not swung open; they weren’t even swing doors at all, not any longer; instead, one large panel violently slid from one side of the front of the barn to the other, as though someone (within) had unlocked the latch, grabbed hold and’d thrown open her jail cell.

The entire barn shook when the suddenly-there sliding door slammed to a stop at the end of its rails. Two barns? For half a hesitation, she wondered if she’d crossed from one farm to another while wandering through the crops. In this part of middle-Michigan, right in the mitt, the land seemed endless, some fields separated by fences, some not. Farmhouses and barns and silos stuck out of the earth like misaligned teeth—far different than the long flat teeth of New York City and Chicago, which were all bright and properly aligned. No, those sticking out of bumfuck-nowhere were all equally old and rotting in their gums.

No one stood in the open maw of the barn, no elongated shadow backlit by the dim light of the farmhouse (yes, same as before). Alone, but not.

Agatha wondered how long ago she’d last been swallowed by the barn (yes, same barn, my barn, Agatha’s Barn, only different now). Time had stretched and’d worn thin these last few days / weeks / however long she’d been away from home. Her mind hot taffy endlessly pulled apart and tossed back into itself, stringy (strong as yarn), her outfit equally holding on by threads. She’d brought a change of clothes or two, probably forgotten somewhere in the barn, or in the woods, but they no longer seemed to matter, were not even close to clean, although she’d showered at some point; and she’d brought another mind, that of her youth, which mattered more than ever now, although she left that in other places sometimes, folded into a labyrinth mind.

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Cat’s cradle, little Aggie mused.

Someone had replaced the swing doors at some point, maybe The Farmer, or the new Carpenter who’d brought the farm back to life. The changes were more recent than not. Even the holes in the roof’d been repaired to some extent. New wood over old wood.

We repaired the roof,” she said, meaning her and Aggie, but couldn’t quite remember anything other than hammering all those shame and pity nails.

“Show me,” she said, meaning whoever’d startled her with the door should step out of the shadows and reveal himself / herself / itself. “What do you want from me?”

With the hammer at her side, Agatha took in her surroundings. She went to the barn, its mouth wide open to night (its mouth wide open tonight, sang her younger self), but no one was right outside the barn. Far across the property, a man stood in the upstairs bathroom window of the farmhouse, watching. Directly under him on the first floor stood another man in the window there. The Farmer and Oliver, or Oliver and The Farmer; they’d see Agatha’s silhouette backlit by the lamp in the barn, but what else would they see? No, she was not alone; she knew this.

Agatha left the barn open behind her, which gave her comfort, the way a prisoner might feel with their cell door left ajar, the option of escape enough not to feel so imprisoned, enough not to want to run screaming out of her cage. The cowardice weighed heavily against her courage, the slug of whiskey finally starting to level things out.

The old Tiffany lamp seemed recently added, or unnoticed earlier, and its stained glass shade offered the cold room a certain fragmented warmth. She took another pull of Blanton’s, let it burn, then pushed the bottle aside past a roll of tape and Sharpies and boxes of lids. The cans of paint had been removed to make room for more canning jars, the walls lined with wooden shelves (there before), and upon them rows and rows of Mason jars (not there before).

All full. All labeled.

There was enough canned crop to last years, what one might expect to find stashed in a bomb shelter, enough to get an entire city through ten years of pandemic. Labeled were jars of “sincerity” and “integrity” and “self-control,” and next to those a horde-supply of “disloyalty” and “abrasiveness” and “pessimism,” and right next to those “optimism” and “tolerance” and “daring.” Enough characteristics to change the world. To last lifetimes. To feed the starving.

The hay was not tossed about as before, but in bales and neatly stacked against the far wall, the old hay thrown out or given back to the dirt. The place tidier. Dusted. Personal belongings, too. Someone had even screwed a bike hook into an exposed two-by-four and from it had hung her Schwinn by its rear tire. Clothes were neatly folded on one of the shelves—not hers—and more jars lined up on others. A few partially emptied, their labels all but worn away. Bottles of water. Make-up and feminine products. A compact mirror. A hairbrush. Tipped-over empty jars. Shards of glass around a spill of red that could be dried tomato sauce or blood.

The loft, little Aggie considered, was it always there?

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A wooden ladder led up to what Agatha could only assume was meant for hay. The hole in the ceiling high above could have once held a pulley. She envisioned The Farmer hoisting up bales, with someone above, maybe a wife or partner at one point, guiding them into place and stacking them by way of hay hooks. The loft above seemed emptied, or maybe readied.

The place settled as old places do, old nails pulled through old wood. If the farmhouse could breathe, Agatha figured, so could the barn. She called out after the sound, whispering,

“Hello?”

There was enough room up there for someone to “squat,” as she herself’d squatted in the barn, with room for a single bed, she figured, an end table, a small dresser. A woman could live up there, by the looks of it: the choice of lamp below, the belongings, the folded clothes, the new orderliness of the place. Was the (recently) shattered jar once filled with tidiness?

Someone could be imprisoned here, she thought, thinking of Chris, of “home.”

Agatha couldn’t remember the barn having a loft, though it always must’ve had one, the construct as old as the rest of the place. Oh, what she might mind find if she braved climbing the ladder: a dirty battered woman spread out like the letter X atop a mattress, bruised wrists chained to the headboard, legs belted to the frame, or maybe only half her body bound so she could still do things; a bucket at her side, a bottle of water, empty jars from regular force-feedings.

“I know what you need,” Agatha said, once Chris’s words—he’d feed her with welts and cuts and scrapes and burns, by fist and blade and ash; he’d take from her to fill his needs.

The moon had sometimes flooded the barn with light, stabbing it through the many holes. She’d sheltered in this place herself a few days, in a tent, but often enjoyed her time outside, whether staring up at the stars through the hole in the roof or watching for the owl.

The tent could fit up there, yes, which might explain where her tent’d gone.

Agatha called again, but was met with only silence, more settling, and then another creak from the opposite end of the loft. No one could possibly be up there, she kept telling herself. Rats maybe. A possum nest. The Barn Own (they live in barns, right? Aggie wondered). In the barn, outside the barn. Someone / something inside but also outside. The owl could be stuck, she figured, especially since the hole in the roof’d been repaired. She made her way to the ladder, put one hand on a rung, considering how the barn doors’d—

Breeze hit her neck, soft and warm as breath. She spun (a hard tug at her back, a spinning black yarn, she imagined, unrolling) but no one was there, though she could sense someone there, watching, waiting. Closer than those in the farmhouse.

“Courage,” she said. “We have courage now.”

As she climbed, the fight against gravity augmented, each step twice as heavy as the previous, so that when she made it to the top the entire weight of Carpenter’s Farm pulled her to a stop. She peered over the side, eyes closed. And what could she imagine upon opening them?

The stare of the woman (yes, a woman) tied to a bed or curled over herself in the corner, in rags as thin as her own, eyes blinding white like those of The Farmer, twin suns (or holes for eyes) ready to both shine upon and draw new life in a forever-spiraling dance (let go of the top rung, won’t you, take this woman’s hand and feel the soundless beat of her blackened heart and dance dance dance) and also a hundred glass jars like asteroids in orbit around her, reflecting the white or swallowing the black (and Agatha, little Aggie, too, they’d be a part of that system soon), all those empty / emptied jars force-fed to the woman or self-administered, it didn’t really matter which for their contents (traits) had been consumed, causing a great change, causing the lights in her eyes (or the opposite: imploded stars, black holes for eyes) to shine or not—

Agatha couldn’t open her eyes. An invisible blindfold had been tied too tightly around face, her eyelids heavy gates (barn doors, Aggie mused, swing-swung sealed, slam-slid shut).

“Open your eyes,” she said to the dark, to herself, “open your eyes!” but couldn’t. She hadn’t drunk enough of that courage, could only allow a poem to write itself without any ink.

ever-expanding black,
a great nothing
between celestial objects,
vast insignificance,
the emptiness defining

“It’s not us that justifies the universe,” she said, the words unexpectedly there, perhaps the poem coming alive through her. “We are nothing more than grains of sand, specks of dirt, collected stardust later turned to ash, constantly churned and re-churned into the soil, recycled. And it’s not our world, no, not Mother Earth that makes life so grand yet so insignificant with our passage, or Father Time, not the sun, nor the stars, nor the countless galaxies and comets and other celestial objects floating about, no, it’s the space between, the void. The dark does not make us so inconsequential, but the light. There’s no sense to fear the dark, only ever the light.”

And so Agatha imagined the woman on the bed, or in the corner, not with twin suns for eyes, but with twin black holes spiraling within her face both clockwise and counter- and not pushing her at all down the old wooden stairs, but pulling her up the rungs, the woman’s blind-sight lifting Agatha (and likewise Aggie) like hay by pulley to be led home by willing hands.

“What’s in the barn?” she said, and opened her eyes.

She saw what was in the barn.

“Agatha,” a voice called from below.

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In turning, Agatha slipped, the topmost rung of the ladder disintegrating within in her hand from the dry rot from an old leak. She fell ten feet, landing hard, crumpling to the floor in a plume.

Chris stood at the barn door, his head hospital-bandaged: thick gauze held by a bandanna of white medical tape. A dark round spot seeped through like the Japanese flag, only black instead of scarlet in the light, the same shape and size as the head of her hammer.

“You’re not really here,” she said, not believing at first. “You’re—”

“Are you living here?” he said, his voice knives. “Actually living here?”

She thought of the woods, the willows, the fields, the farmhouse, the barn, what she’d found in the loft, all of it. She stood and dusted herself off and made her way to the many shelves of jars. The hammer waited there—what she’d used to maim but not kill him—and a row of jars labeled “vengeful” (or “vengefulness” with the ‘ness’ on the first jar finger-smudged with dirt). She went to the Blanton’s, took a long pull of courage. As she set the bottle down, one of the jars exploded next to her. Two broken jars now, spilled into each other, the tar-crumbs of collected crop falling into the red, whatever that may be. Her mind a flood of past / present / future.

“I asked you a goddamn question,” he said, holding a rock. He tossed it in the air (a small thing, like him) to show her what he was capable of doing, perhaps, that his next rock wouldn’t miss, that she’d better answer his goddamn question. “Are you living here?” he said.

A phone hung on the wall in front of her. A landline. A handprint from someone who’d recently made a call. The cord ran down then along the shelf and disappeared. She could reach out, call someone, but who? She could call the police, report a fire—that would get people here, sure—or report a lunatic on the loose, but she knew if she picked up the handset there’s be no dial-tone, just a person breathing on the other end, the line connected directly to the farmhouse.

She eyed the hammer, the spilled crop, took another swig of whiskey. She couldn’t remember a phone ever being in the barn, but here it was, like the lamp, like the loft, like the hundreds upon hundreds of filled jars.

The shattered glass of the one closest to her meant Chris was here, not a figment of her imagination, not a ghost, not dead. No, he was here, at Carpenter’s Farm, in her barn, Agatha’s Barn. He’d somehow tracked her down. She’d apparently not headstone-tipped his mind to mush after all. He was here, now, to take her back, a man who thought a woman could be owned.

Agatha responded not by answering but by bringing a handful of spilled harvest to her mouth. She didn’t care about the gritty mud-like texture or the horrid coppery tinge. Welcomed it, in fact, smiling. She crunched down on broken glass, which bit her back, and she spat out the shard the way Chris’d sometimes spit at her (once, right in the face), like father’d spit on Mother when she wouldn’t listen. Memories as wild as his voice. One person could not own another, no, one could only poltergeist-press another into believing in possession.

She gathered another handful, careless of the glass, and swallowed the sludge, chased it down with courage. She was done being scared of this monster, of any monster. The jar next to it read “rash” and she unscrewed the lid and took a bite of one of the ugly greenish things inside (dash of rash, sang Aggie). She opened more jars: a pinch of power, stalks of strength.

There was a twinkling in the creature’s eyes preying upon her, pure hatred (Chris’d eaten so much anger in his pathetic life, and indiscretion, and dishonesty, and deceit, much like her father, always hungry, those two), but older Agatha wouldn’t be scared of that glimmer of light in the dark of his eyes, no, not any longer.

“The emptiness defines,” she said, thinking of the there-then-gone poem.

“What’s wrong with you,” Chris said. “Why’re you such a mess?” His words dissolved in the wind, shaky, unstable. “What are you— what are you eating? Stop. Answer me.”

The next rock cracked against her sternum. The pain temporary. Chris wouldn’t’ve cared if it’d hit her face, her eye, or any other part of her because the body healed.

She’d been hit plenty, the pain no longer meaningful, no longer there.

Agatha grabbed the hammer, then, held it close to the lamplight so he’d see its silver clearly, and she turned to him and turned the tool over so he’d see her intention—that she’d headstone-tip that final nail. The bandage on his head served as guide where to strike.

He rubbed the back of his head, as if just remembering what she’d done to him, said, “You nearly killed me,” though his words didn’t matter. He talked to himself as she stepped toward him. As he backpedaled. Full of what, cowardice? The thought made little Aggie laugh inside, imagining her older self a short while ago by chance (or by choice) tasting that crop. But still he spoke, said rage-faced, “You did this to me!” pointing at the wound, “hospitalized me, you— you,” but he couldn’t say bitch because she held the hammer, “and what did I ever do to you other than provide for you, love you?” Still he backpedaled, bumped into the barn door, said, “I gave you the world, Agatha,” but no, he’d made himself her world, and made Agatha his moon; she’d been stuck for years in monotonous rotation (he not monogamous), pulled round and round and unable to break free. Now she wanted nothing more than to explore the—

ever-expanding black,
a great nothing

—void and define herself in that emptiness, that vast insignificance. Here he was, so small, eclipsed by her colossus shadow, barn light behind her, and here she was, his moon pulled too hard by his constant gravity and about to come crashing down. “You did this to me,” he repeated and tripped over his feet, fell, hands crossed in front of him. Agatha advanced at a run, and he let out a rapid ramble, “but I tracked you down ’cause much as you need me, Ag”—the vile nickname he’d “given” her— “you need me,” and she stood over him, tall as ever, hand cocked back and about to tip the ugliest of nails. She swung down as he closed his eyes.

A crater split the ground next to him, burying inches deep and inches from his cower-crumpled face. That was enough to drive him away, she hoped, for he’d pissed himself. Aggie wanted to end him, like father, but Agatha couldn’t bring herself that low.

“How did you find me?” she said. “Open your eyes, tell me.”

Chris told her how as she craned over him, the hammer still in the ground. After she’d struck him the first time back “home” Chris’d managed to pull himself to their living room window before crawling to his cell phone to call an ambulance and “days and days ago, this was,” he said and that he’d seen her riding off on her bike, had seen which direction. The hospital’d kept him overnight, and then two more nights until he could sign himself out. And then he’d stopped at every stop on the route he’d seen her go, asking if anyone’d seen a woman riding a bike, showing her photograph—which he then pulled from his pocket to show Agatha—and had eventually stopped in a general store. “The man in the blue apron there rambled on about Carpenter’s Farm up the road, here.”

“No one answered at the farmhouse when I knocked,” Chris said, pointing behind him, “and the doorbell’s just a hole.” The lights turned out the moment before he glanced over his shoulder, then, as he pointed to show her there was indeed a house hiding in the dark.

Agatha raised the hammer again; she could bring it down, have her taste of freedom, despite her fill of vengefulness, rash, power and strength, already warmed from the courage.

“The light came on in the barn,” he said, “and I heard the door slam open.” He stunk of urine, his breath of beer, his mouth spewing lies. Always incapable of truth, this drunk.

She’d find a six-pack in a cooler in the car, she knew, empty Corona bottles tossed in the backseat—the beer now soaked in his pants and watering the ground beneath him—and cigarette butts crumpled in the ashtray like bent nails. Behind him, all was black. She couldn’t imagine Chris following her all this way, all this time, asking around, knocking on doors in the middle of the night (three or four o’clock in the morning, she figured, the moon below the horizon now). And she especially couldn’t imagine him walking all this way from farmhouse to barn in complete darkness, not with all the shadows, not with so many feet crunching through fields.

“What is that?” he asked, for he heard them too.

“You will leave and never come back,” Agatha said.

“What happened to you? Why are you—?”

She pounded the ground next to him to make him flinch, a soft thud for every phrase; through clenched teeth and with her hair dangling over him she said, “You will leave and never come back,” thud, “and you will not follow me,” thud, “and you will live your life without me in it,” thud, “and you do not need me, as much as I do not need you, do you hear me?”

Agatha drove the hammer as hard as she could into the ground next to him.

“Who is that,” he said, eyes asquint, “out there, making all that noise? Who lives here? What is this place? And what is that?” he said pointing behind her to the barn, the dim light reflected in his eyes shaking and terrified. “What’s in the barn? What’s in the barn?”

She smiled because she knew.

He kicked out, his foot connecting with the side of her knee, and he grabbed the hammer from her as she fell and in that motion swung it sideways against her temple, bringing Agatha the stars. As the darkness around her spun, Chris scrambled backward like a spider, managed to stand even as she grabbed hold of his ankle, and he swung again, connecting with the meat of her shoulder, whether he meant to or not, knocking her back.

Something in him changed, a sudden craze. Agatha’d seen this transformation before, the way Aggie’d seen it in her father countless times in her youth. The man becoming the monster. Blood-lust. If the full moon were out his skin would crack apart and fur would sprout, his face stretching to a snout, teeth elongating to fangs, and he’d howl up at the light before striking.

You open this goddamn door! she expected him to shout, but this was not her father, not her youth, and the barn door had already been flung wide open.

All at once a sickness came out of her. She held both her shoulder and stomach and purged out a mess of black; up came the courage, up came everything but the cowardice, it seemed, and as she wiped her mouth Chris stood tall over her. He wielded the hammer this time. Blood dripped from his bandage and ran down his ear and along his smile. Their roles’d reversed back to how they’d always been: since she’d married him; since long before that, even … just a girl. Chris and her father had that same disease growing inside them.

“What were you going to do?” he said, “hit me like you did afore?”

His last word sounded off, like something her father’d say, as if she’d crushed a more sophisticated part of him that’d rewound what he’d meant to say as something more primitive.

He swung at the air in front of her, whoosh, and she felt its wind. If she hadn’t flinched and slipped and fallen back at that moment he’d’ve crushed in her skull, would’ve shattered her jaw, his swing in symmetric pendulum, she realized, about to whoosh back down again.

Agatha meant to throw a handful of dirt in his face as she rolled away, but managed a wet mass of what’d come out of her instead, a slop of hot-expunged characteristics. The shoulder pained her fierce but she managed to regain her feet and run past him.

“Ag!” he screamed—her butchered name—running right behind her.

The black yarn as strong as steel-braided rope tugged her not toward the barn, where she could slam the door and slide the bolt and shelter inside, and not to the farmhouse to pound on windows or doors, and not to the fence line of willows that lead to the woods where she’d stayed for so many nights giving poems and paper back to the trees, and not even to Chris’s car parked a ways down the road (Chris’d always kept his keys on him, she knew), but to the fields that’d fed her all this time, that had changed  her, that’d fed and changed everyone on Carpenter’s Farm.

He called her name again, like a curse, letting her know she’d gained a lead.

She ran until her lungs burned; even barefoot, she’d put some distance between them. She held her shoulder, held the stab at her side, took a moment to catch a breath.

All we got in us is cowardice, Aggie mused.

She was right. It had to come out. And so Agatha shoved her longest fingers down her throat and gagged, fingers forced in deep and unwanted, and out it came in a fiery rush.

No longer was she afraid of him.

All this time wandering the farmland, Agatha’s eyes’d grown accustomed to the dark, to the waxing and waning of the moon, and she could find her way around even in its absence, which gave her the advantage. She’d learned the land, knew the fields well.

In the distance, Chris stumbled and fell, swore.

She shadow-slipped inside a tall crop and walked with her shoulders askew through wide leaves that each wanted to touch her. A field of grit. She ripped off a piece and chewed (texture matches its name, how nice) as she made her way from one side of the field to the other down a row just wide enough for her to squeeze past, laughing inside as Chris Motherfucker’d his way through, each tall stalk reaching out to slap him, it seemed, to slice him into swearing.

Agatha passed from grit to responsibility, according to the wooden markers. Yes, she had a certain responsibility, especially now, but needed more. She reached down and plucked a few of its fruits (so this is what responsibility tastes like) and ate until her mind told her she’d had enough. She carried on to the next crop and the next as her (ex)husband plodded along far behind her, lost, but still following, maybe squinting down every once in a while to search for footsteps. She took only what she needed, not taking what she needn’t, and finally stopped at an unlabeled patch of dirt. The ground not yet plowed. Another dead field.

“Dead field,” she said, and the girl inside her snickered.

The Farmer stood in the center, face hidden by the brim of his hat. Every last star shined above him, as though someone had pounded every last 16-penny nail on earth into the (infinite) black, into all that great nothingness she still needed (and wanted) to explore.

the emptiness defining
            / divining
            / ever-changing
            / forever-endless

He held his long shovel beside him, which he then planted into the ground, and then he turned away from her, leaving the tool there, having showed her all he needed to show her. He walked away, faded into the next field. There, then gone.

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There was The Farmer. The Farmer was there.

“Agatha!” her (ex)husband cried, finally caught up to her. He stumbled into the empty field like a drunkard. He’d driven all this way, drunk-determined to have her, though no person could ever be had. In the open, what little light above created a magical-monochrome effect, everything more illuminated. Black ran freely from his wound, had soaked into his shirt. He’d lost a lot of blood in his pursuit. “Ag,” he said, out of breath, out of just about everything. He fell over, holding the hammer, her hammer, used the end of it to push himself up, then fell again. He crawled to her, one hand outstretched, the other dragging the hammer as if he couldn’t let go.

Never had she seen him so pathetic. Had he been drawn to eat from the fields? The dirt on his face could be from sweat and falling facedown, or from handfuls of earth brought to his mouth to feed an insatiable hunger. He could have filled himself with defeat, helplessness, panic, any number of things. But here he was now. In one of the unlabeled empty field.

In one of the bad crops.

Agatha stood as The Farmer had, thinking, There is Agatha; Agatha is there.

The bandage had fallen off, and so the crater in Chris’s head seeped freely as he soldier-crawled to her, eyes pleading, fingers curling. She went to him, stepped on the hand holding her hammer. She pried it from his fingers, held it over him a moment then brought it down—

(into his head)
(into the earth)
(into her belt loop)

—but no, she hadn’t killed him before, and wouldn’t do so now. He would’ve survived had he not come after her; had he not bled out his horrible traits. He’d done this to himself.

She watched curiously as the last of his blood pooled out of him as dark as oil. She counted one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, all the way to nine-eleven-one-thousand before checking for the pulse no longer there. She used the shovel to cut off his ring finger (severing two others), which curled around the wedding band, and threw both the finger and the ring for the owl. She’d earlier tossed her own band into the creek in the woods where she’d bathed.

Agatha dug for the rest of the night, until the last of the stars winked out and the light of the morning sun brought life and color back to the world. After taking the keys from his pocket, she buried his body in the dead field, which Oliver would someday till and till and till with the other things buried there. “It’s time to go home, Aggie,” she said, “time to get some help.”

She made one last trip past the willows to retrieve her backpack, then returned one last time to the crops to fill her jars with what she’d need going forward. No more than that. In the car, she tore out the last pages of her notebook because one last poem wanted out of her before leaving Carpenter’s Farm, and because sometimes poems write themselves, and because Agatha was beginning to right herself, which would start with a little therapy.

jars_40

When you can’t see them anymore,
            their outlines permanently flashed:
                        against dirt, once grass
                        against asphalt, and brick
                        against will
            washed clean by endless tears
            they are never gone
            in death they still run:
                        into the earth
                        down drains
                        from thoughts

Blink not to forget
            but to cover individually
            with pleasant-past
                        / blink

When you close your eyes
            their lives inverted silhouettes:
                        hidden in memory
                        hidden from the children
                        hidden inside
            washed away by a sleeve
            they are gone
            in reality you still drive:
                        away from the flames
                        down fiery lanes
                        into smoke

Blink not to remember
            but to let go
            of the loss
                        / blink

When you pick your random non-random moment
            their images temporarily erased:
                        replaced by sandy beaches
                        replaced with smiles
                        replaced recursively
            from the mind over years
            they are forever
            alive and never still:
                        but linger
                        as reminders
                        of compassion

Blink not for closure
            but to overlay
            one atop the other
                        / blink

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[ To be continued ? ]


This may be the end, but maybe not. I have another 3,000 words or so that might want out, making this novella a nice round 30,000 . But who knows. Either way, let me know what you think.

I hope you’re enjoying this strange tale so far, as well as Glenn’s illustrations, and every other piece of writing, art, music, poetry inspired by Josh Malerman’s Carpenter’s Farm. 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!


 

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AGATHA’S BARN: A CARPENTER’S FARM STORY (part 4)

agathas_barn_logo_pt4

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 and Part 3 first. I also I highly recommend catching up on Carpenter’s Farm (the first twenty or so chapters) before continuing. Josh adds new chapters each Monday, Wednesday & Friday.


jars_33

The old man’d left her there, having taught her all he could. The old man’d shown her the other crops, for there were many. Row upon unlabeled row, field after field. This one is power, this one empathy, this one balance, and this one decisiveness. “And this one is freedom,” she’d reasoned and said aloud, having planted those bone seeds herself, emptying her entire jar.

“Someone needs freedom,” Agatha said, “someone already here.”

She wondered if ‘need’ was a trait, and imagined it could be, that there was probably a field bearing that particular fruit. But can a person ever grow with need, or would that person forever be stunted in growth? Did certain crops hurt the way others nourished? Could some cause a person to wither, especially those from the dead fields? There were good crops and bad; some alive, some not. Agatha’d followed The Farmer to many but not all. She’d bent down to take what she needed (but not need), a temporary fill, but after bringing power to her lips, she had to remind herself that like gluttony and greed, no one really needed such things.

“Yet here they are,” she’d said, “for someone to feast upon.”

This one’s courage, the old man’d said, or hadn’t, but you’ve had plenty. And you’re familiar with these two already, he’d said or hadn’t (no, not with words) while tugging her by his invisible string from one dead field to the next, showing her pity and shame.

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Agatha’d thought of her jars of nails labeled the same, then, and how she’d pounded in those flaws into the barn to make her shelter stronger; not needing to feed on those traits, necessarily, but to purge them by proxy right out of her and into the old wood.

They were gone the next day, Aggie mused. Where’d they go?

“Back,” Agatha said, “they went back,” the nails back to their containers in the barn, a few of Oliver’s friends back to their homes before the farm, “but not all—”

“Which one’s empathy?” she asked the old man, but he’d gone and she’d already forgotten. He’d left her there. He’d returned to the farmhouse; she knew that much, the old man perhaps sitting upstairs in his green chair, looking down his hat, or maybe making his way around the rooms and shifting about like burn spots in a movie reel, flip-flip-flip­-flickering.

She felt him there, felt many still there (or not there at all): someone in the living room, someone climbing the stairs, someone in every room (no one in any of the rooms). A part of her knew a woman had returned from ‘The City,’ one of the guests from the dinner party, and she stood in the pantry at this very moment (brandy, was there brandy high up on the shelves?), the same spot Agatha’d stood not so long ago with the slated door closed; this woman contemplated a jar of decisiveness, she knew, uncertain but tempted to unscrew the lid and pour the contents down her throat. So many jars, each labeled differently. Not there before, but there now.

Why’d she come back? Who (or what) was she looking for?

Oliver’d filled those jars as he took over the farm, labeled them accordingly.

“Do we even need empathy?” she asked her younger self, shaking the thought.

She ran a hand through the soil, brought a handful to her face, inhaled. Doesn’t smell like empathy. Smells like regret, so foul, so familiar.

The question went unanswered, of course, as the sound of a door shutting in the distance caused her to let go of the dirt (someone had entered the farmhouse, or had left the farmhouse), which she let cascade through her splayed fingers. Not so hungry, not any more, though she’d nearly brought the handful to her mouth absentmindedly. The house was not alone. The woman in the house was not alone. Agatha was not alone.

Back. Someone else is back.                                              

Nights ago she’d watched from the grave behind the barn as one of Oliver’s guests’d walked out of the fields barefoot, the man’s sweater wrapped loosely around his bare chest, face covered in earth, as though he’d fallen face-first into one of the fields and’d filled himself with everything missing from his life. He’d made his way to the tree line of willows, had looked over his shoulder, at her or at the barn, then at the farmhouse, one last goodbye to his friends still there, perhaps, and to her, if he’d seen her, and then’d disappeared into the black between trees.

“Should I feel sorry for him?” she asked, meaning not this man but Chris (or maybe both). “Was he simply raised into becoming the monster he turned out to be,” (like father, no, not ever!) “not knowing any better? No one ever judges a predator for hunting prey, unless human. No one ever calls dominance over another ‘abuse,’ unless human. No one ever blames—”

You’re sounding like father, like Chris, like you’ve lost sense.

The man in the sweater’d resembled her mother in a way, Agatha’d thought then, not the woman of her youth, beaten till bloodied, or battered till “learned,” as her father would say, but Mother from the recurring dream. Both she and this man had carried with them the same determination, eyes and all other mannerisms edifying it’s alright, it’s okay, with intent of a greater purpose. Watch what I’m about to do, Aggie. Watch me jump. This man’d fed himself from the crops, ravenously, it seemed, dirty chin held high at having filled in all those missing pieces of himself, no longer lost, no longer wandering forever and ever

What Agatha hungered for now more than anything was reason; her stomach panged for reason. She figured she’d find a row planted somewhere on this farm if she looked long enough. And by the position of the moon stuck above her, she figured time no longer mattered.

She went down each row, asking, “Where’d’you plant this reason?” but the old man wasn’t there to answer. You’ll find it, she imagined him saying (though not with words), close to logic and rationality. Don’t worry, you’ll find it if you really need it, and you’ll find that, too.

On her way to the barn, she passed where she’d sprinkled her father in neat rows. Another knelt in that field, stuffing his face with dirt.

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jars_34

“The recycling of people,” Agatha said in a whisper. Maybe she didn’t say the words at all as she admired the man cramming in handful after handful. Same night? Same man? Weeks ago? The déjà vu settled in again. This wasn’t the first time he’d come out to this particular field to eat, nor the first time she’d seen him do it; she could tell as much by his determination, and hers, and by the bare footprints leading in and out of only that part of the field, by the stains on his shirt. Dry-swallowing what, exactly? One person unknowingly eating the cremains of another, is it still cannibalism? What had she planted in the dirt that night (or this night, possibly the same) along with the ash of her father? Not freedom, she knew. A bad crop. She’d planted a bad crop. How long ago was that? She had cried, then, whenever that was, and the sky had cried with her.

But what had she planted? The man craved what was in the ground desperately, gorging himself (this time, last time, every time). He coughed and expelled a plume of cigarette-like smoke, and he gagged like father used to after waking from drunken stupors on the couch (his smoker’s cough, mama used to call it, remember?) and then turned to his side and retched and held his stomach and retched again, held his stomach like something inside wanted to burst out, and then he purged not a cancerous lung (as Aggie sometimes suspected her father would, the wet way it always sounded) but a mixture of dirt- and ash-mud, about a jar’s worth.

The man threw up bits of her father in turn, fragments of femur, a hint of humerus, jagged crumbs of jawbone, a chip of molar, maybe part of a rib. Just when she thought he was done, he retched yet again, and most of what came out next came out dry, making him cough more. But that didn’t stop him from taking in more of the bad crop. He hungrily grabbed at the earth. He scooped another handful, forced it down, scooped another handful, forced it down.

And he laughed, thought it funny, eating those ashes. Humerus, he was probably thinking. This is all humerus. The same dull and punny sense of humor as her father.

“Hi, dad,” she said under her breath to the rows (always dad and never Dad), and the cold thought came out as a stream, like her father letting out some of his Kool after a long pull.

The man in the field pulled more dirt, stuffing his face and laughing around the earth in his mouth as it went in and came out of him. Laughing, and rolling on the ground like a dog over a dead and decaying animal found in the grass to get its stink. A sick joke. Rolling in it.

Agatha imagined her father’s charred body pulled from the house fire all those years ago, later placed onto a cremation table just to be burned again. His bones’d been ground up as fine as flour, sure, but there were bits of hard white in that gray powder, she knew. Six or seven pounds—that’s what the cardboard box had weighed, maybe less because not all of him had been found in the foundation outline of what they’d once called home. She’d opened the seal right after receiving him, her father’s ashes collected in a bag, and’d ran her fingers through his death.

She’d laughed, then, because sometimes laughter conceals fear.

Most of the farmhouse guests had come to the fields at one point or another to fill their stomachs or to fill jars brought to the farmhouse, but only Agatha and The Farmer and his new apprentice had ever tended to the crops, as far as she knew (and if that’s what he’d shown her to do could be called). We planted a bad crop, chimed little Aggie, waterfall-watered them with our tears. You couldn’t have good without bad in the world. Good required bad to even exist in the first place—a constant struggle of balance between the two, always. Yin and yang. Right and Wrong. Horror and comedy. They’d planted a bad crop in this dead field, and for whatever reason this man needed what now grew there and curled himself around it tightly, survival-eating like a prisoner and unable to take the hunger seriously.

“What did we plant, Aggie?” she asked.

Maybe seed for need. Is wanting more such a bad thing?

He turned to Agatha then, hunched over, his face a mess. He tilted his head and made an expression one makes when sensing the unseen, the way a person startles when finding what’s not really there in the dark: a shimmer in the shadows, a mock silhouette from a stack of clothes piled on a chair, a suddenly-there reflection of one’s self in a mirror (say his name three times, I dare you). She’d seen plenty of not-quite-theres stepping in and out of the willows (and in and out of the woods, the fields, the farmhouse, the barn) long before any of these new arrivals came to Carpenter’s Farm. And she’d seen the new farmer planting and plowing the fields aplenty.

Roll over, Oliver. Roll over all of her, Aggie reminded her.

He snickered, as if hearing her made-up lyrics.

In the monochrome night, what stained this man’s face black could be mud or blood (maybe both), his face all-too familiar. He’d heard her voice, or perhaps her subtle crunch of footsteps as she stalked past, or perhaps’d only heard the wind. He stared at Agatha a moment with his muddy-bloody face, or not at her at all, bent like a question mark over his bare feet, then instantly insisted she never existed and returned to his maniacal business.

Too much need can turn to greed, Aggie sang, mud to blood.

She thought of warning the man of what he ate, part of her hoping he’d maybe head to the next crop over and have himself a heartier meal (joy was planted there, alongside happiness and wonder and glee, but she kept to herself and moved to one of the far fields.

“Just a taste,” she told herself, imagining bodies rolled into the earth.

Imagining The Farmer at the window in the farmhouse.

jars_35

The moon still hadn’t moved from its position half-watching over her, or moved so slowly (no, the earth spinning its pirouette, she told herself, the moon dead, just floating out there) that time seemed to’ve all but stalled. She’d gone to the fields, but how long had she stayed? Too long, not long enough? And what crop had she eaten and how much? Her fingers smelled of wet earth, of mold and decay. A maggot clung to the web between her fingers, which she flicked away.

“Something from the bad crops,” she said aloud.

What does cowardice smell like? she wondered, but she knew;  cowardice smelled like her hands, like her breath. Agatha spat out the grit clinging to her teeth. Spat again. Water had been plumbed to the barn, so she drank from the spigot and rinsed her mouth. Spat again.

As she drank, a raven or crow sat perched atop the barn, laughing at her.

Light shone afar from the farmhouse. Bodies passed between windows, downstairs, upstairs. The Farmer there (not there), and a few of the guests, though she hadn’t seen Oliver since the woman from New York City’d returned. She imagined him walking in the willows now because that’s where Agatha’d been before this, giving poems to the trees. The woman, she knew, the one who’d returned, wandered through the house alone, then not-so-alone; she’d had the brandy in the pantry, pulled to the liquid courage the way Agatha’d been pulled to cowardice.

Just a taste. Sometimes that’s all it took to ignite change, as simple as a child’s warm breath over the wilting fuse of a cigarette to spread the smallest of flames across—

“Cowardice is the direct opposite of courage,” Agatha said, and backed into the barn doors, which rattled on its overly-large hinges. Locked from the inside. Someone inside watching her shadow, she imagined, dancing across the fist-sized gap underneath. The whiskey was in there, another type of courage, yet even the smallest amount of what she’d swallowed in the fields kept her from wanting to go inside, afraid to go inside, for fear of what she might find, the little voice in her mind asking What’s in the barn? What’s in the Barn? What the fuck’s in the barn? Not around, not alongside, not buried in back, but awaiting inside the barn.

The raven or crow, the blackest of birds, called out its warning not to enter.

A sound similar to the man in a fit shoving fistfuls of dirt into his mouth.

If Oliver indeed hid (not hiding, no, not waiting either) and watched her from the willows as she had watched others contemplating whether or not to enter the barn (where she’d stayed— where she’d sheltered—for days upon days), would he see her new cowardice?

“Cowardice is yellow,” she said.

The yellow would be wafting off her and he’d (or anyone out there’d) peg her as such, as a damn yellow coward, and the leg-slip of shadow she’d seen had to be his, had to be, but was he out there searching for something (for her poems slit-stashed in the bark) or wandering about for other reasons, or was he simply there to observe her growing and / or withering?

She imagined the cowardice wafting off her body like hot shower steam, trailing after her. Had he found her poems before they’d fallen to pieces? If poems wrote themselves, Agatha considered, they could as easily unwrite themselves, absorbed back into the trees. She imagined comedy and tragedy masks laughing and not, first the smile, then its opposite.

Why do rainbows frown / Aggie mused / with their prismatic lips to the ground?

Not a panic attack, no, this was

Part of an unwritten poem from her youth, Agatha knew.

“They went back,” she said aloud, meaning her words, meaning some of the farmhouse guests. “No, not all of them went back. Some stayed. And some would never go back.”

Another poem flooded through her then as the bird above her cawed, the stanzas slicing syllables into her mind like some nocturnal waking nightmare, and Agatha’d title the poem as such because poems were all but capable of titling themselves, this one “The Nocturnal Waking Nightmare,” as the words formed and unformed, written then erased—

Agoraphobic tendencies
in the middle of the night,
begins with every finger tingling,
            / squeeze and release
            / squeeze and release
the tarantula hands ever-curling
but needing to stretch
            / breathe in
            / breathe out …

In my head: bold paintbrush strokes,
capital letters, first the A, three slow
lines of black, then the curves of a B—

Part of her wanted to pull the pen from her pack, to frantically scrawl everything down onto one of the few remaining pages in her notebook, to be the vessel, but her fingers—

It’s not enough—
Need to walk around—
Three in the morning and I can’t—
            / squeeze and release
            / squeeze and release
Each step is not enough
but this needs to get walked off
            / breathe in
            / breathe out …

One night she awoke gasping, startled out of slumber (the only memory of Chris she could recall that revealed even a mote of care), not with his hand held firmly over her mouth, but anxiety hitting her hard instead of him with his fists this time. Her heart beating erratically, baum-baum, baum-baum, every inch of her tingling with battery-licked electric intensity, each tendon in her body pulled taut and plucked by a dirty finger unable to let go as she thought I’m going to die, I’m going to

“What’s wrong, dear?”
“I just need— I just need to
  walk around is all, I just—”

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors:
Citalopram, Fluvoxamine, Sertaline …

Maybe one of the others,
the Luvox, the Paxil,
but will it be enough?

Every joint on edge, every fiber firing
            / tightness in the chest
            / the building pressure …

In my head: count back from a hundred,
ninety-nine, too distracted, ninety-eight,
can’t focus, need to focus on calming—

The medication had helped at first, a new kind of freedom from falling into depression, but her body had grown, had dosage-adapted, and so she’d required another drug, then another, and then more pills to help her sleep, others to—

It’s not enough—
Need to get out of here—
Anywhere but here, get it out of my head—
            / squeeze and release
            / squeeze and release
Each inhale is not enough
but needs to not be the last
            / breathe in
            / breathe out …

Chris’d cared then, that first and only time, touching her shoulder, gentle-like, perhaps just as startled out of his own sleep by her jaunted-jolt upright, saying,

 “Can I get you anything, dear?”

And she’d said,

“I don’t know— I don’t know
  what’s wrong with me, I—”

—before she’d gone to her medicine cabinet magic box to help make it all go away (all but Chris), though such things (to leave bad men) took time, took toll, her body the vessel—

Seratonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors:
Venlafaxine, Duloxetine …

Maybe switch to one of those,
the Efflexor, the Cymbalta,
but will it be enough?
Circling around the room, the spinning room

            / tightness in the chest
            / the building pressure …

In my head: death would be easier than this,
much easier, a single brushstroke, the slow
and simple curve of a C—

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The words in her head had come and gone as her mouth formed new ones. Agatha pounded against the barn doors screaming, “What’s in the barn?” as the raven or crow fluttered off. She wanted to know. She didn’t want to know. Cowardice needed the courage hidden inside in order to level out, to become balanced.

Like the woman we found (forever?) sleeping in one of the fields, done laughing.

She imagined a similar version of herself sitting inside and sheltered by the storm she now created, drinking Blanton’s directly from the bottle, painting imaginary black letters in her mind to try to settle her nerves, a fat-tipped brush as wide as her hand. She imagined her other self painting the uppercase alphabet (boys, Aggie mused) and each lowercase letter (girls) in wide strokes above her using an imaginary pool of paint. This mind-mimic helped calm her, usually—painting imaginary letters. There, then gone, like words carved into the sand and swallowed by the forever-hungry ocean.

Memories write themselves, same as poetry, she knew, ebbing and flowing, and they unwrite themselves, appearing and disappearing and reappearing on their own accord.

Wind did not rattle the barn doors this time, but her fists against the old wood.

She tried to remember the poem, but—

… the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

No, that was Poe. Her poem’d already recessed, replaced by a few lines she’d been read as a child and had later memorized in eighth grade, still there, every last word:

So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —
This it is, and nothing more.”

“What traits’re purple,” she said, “like the silken sad uncertain rustling curtains?”

Like the woman we found (forever?) sleeping in one of the fields, done laughing.

Compassion. Understanding. Sensitivity … all three considered purple.

Agatha closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, held it there for one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand, five-one-thousand, six-one-thousand, seven-one-thousand, forcing the thunder as far away as she could muster. She finally released her breath and took another, held it for seven more seconds, heart thutter-thumping.

She’d eaten cowardice in the field, which had caused the anxiety, which had caused the attack. There were so many unlabeled crops, row upon row, like the bad crop she’d planted. This was no stranger to her, but she couldn’t remember the last time one’d hit her so hard.

No, not alone, Aggie reasoned. The Farmer showed us how to plant what (and who) we’d brought, and where, just not why.

She let the thoughts go, even those of little Aggie, draping her canvass in white. She began with an uppercase A, painting in broad strokes, then the B, then the C, her pulse slowly-slowing, the tingling lessening, and then she switched to lowercase, got to the end, repeated uppercase, and got all the way to O (for Oliver, Aggie mused) and opened her eyes.

jars_36

She sat inside the barn, legs crisscross-applesauce. Backpack in front of her, open. All the jars empty, or emptied. The hammer at her side, ready to headstone-tip another jar-full of nails. A light rain fell through the hole in the ceiling, directly upon her, then gone. Clothes soaked.

“What did we eat?” she asked.

Agatha couldn’t remember how she’d gotten in the barn, only the bolt-action rifle slip of latch sliding hard into place, a ghost echo, maybe an echo of an echo. Outside the swing doors, a shadow moved across the gap underneath. I dare you to reach under, grab an ankle. What little light outside the barn shifted, possibly from a partially-clouded sky. What Chris’d often called ‘half-stormy,’ the weather unsure what to do with itself, ‘just pissin’ people off.’

“I dare you to go up to the door of the farmhouse,” she whispered in the dark, her very words composing themselves. “I dare you to touch the door for three seconds, eyes closed, then run back.” Had she been here before, as a child, in a dream? “I dare you to go inside the barn, for three seconds, eyes closed, then stay there for three more. I dare you not to scream when you find what’s waiting inside.” The barn doors like teeth.

One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand.

She thought of the mirror in the upstairs bathroom in the farmhouse, remembered lighting the candle, staring into / through the mirror, saying a name like “The Farmer” three times.

“He’ll come for you,” she said.

Agatha’d had her fill of cowardice; what she needed now was courage to get her through whatever this was—one the opposite of the other, split by a line as fine as that between humor and horror. She smelled her hands: clean, like her hair (shampooed, conditioned), but how?

She must’ve gone into the farmhouse at some point, she reasoned, when no one was around (no, the house’s never empty, though it slept sometimes). No cars in the yard, no truck—that old beater Oliver’d sometimes drive into town. No lights inside for days.

She’d lit the candle, again—the memory now turned into a memory of a memory, a faded carbon copy of a copy of a copy. The smell of burnt-wick after the wind’d blown out the flame (that, she could remember clear as crystal), a little apparition rising from its death (she could only imagine), for the room’d turned black as pitch. She’d stood in the shower, then, lukewarm falling over her from a calcium-clotted showerhead. The recollection fell hard as the water.

Her newly acquired cowardice must’ve headstone-tipped a few courage nails into her noggin’ causing her to forget all these not-so-long-ago memory bits, but another part of her now, maybe Aggie outside her mind using the claw end of the hammer to pry out—

A shriek.

Highest fucking pitch she’d ever heard, as if blasted out a stereo dialed to eleven, and just as the light’d gone out in the bathroom (no, not Agatha in the old porcelain tub screaming, and not Aggie prying out those nails in the barn in her head in her past in the now or in the in-between) then and there in the farmhouse. The memory hot as fire.

Another shriek: impossibly longer, louder, despite being muffled by the ceiling: a Siren-fox calling out for help. No, not help, a distraction; it had sounded like a distraction.

Agatha clearly remembered turning off the water, the cartoon four-fingered hands for knobs calling out their impersonations of the noises above—that womanly screech—but like most dreams upon waking, the phantom-flickers of what-once-was (or never-ever-was) faded, and a single thought soft as silk came to her and she said,

“Say my name like that and I’ll come for you.”

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

Yet there wasn’t a room above the second floor, only an attic, for she’d seen walk-in stairs but had never dared to enter. And then whatever’d happened in the bathroom and thereafter was gone, the nail pulled clean free (there, made it better, little Aggie would say, just as momma used to after fixing a scrape). And whatever’d happened to her youth, the good parts, flooded in to help hide the bad with faint memories of her mother reading her poetry. Long before eighth grade assignments, Mother’d read her “The Raven,” which is why it’d been so easy to memorize.

The shadow under the barn doors split into two equal columns.

A man stood outside, legs apart.

Nevermore.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.

The swing doors swung inward, rattling. Whoever stood on the opposite side pushed, metal clattering, again, and again, not the wind, but the backs of fists pounding against the wood, screaming Let me in this goddamn door! without any words.

For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being …

Not her father, Agatha knew, for he was now truly gone (recycled), and not Mother, Agatha knew, for she was also truly gone (turned back to memory) and would never talk that way, not ever, not to anyone, always terrified of what trouble raising her voice might invite.

The Blanton’s called to Agatha from the shelf—liquid courage, which might help balance out the cowardice she’d devoured. The bottle sat covered in a thin layer of dust; this she could tell from moonlight permeating through the barns many holes. Only half-stormy outside.

But the barn had power now, and so she went to the wall and flipped the switch, which didn’t seem to do anything, the two hanging bulbs not offering a soft buzz. The lights swung like hanged men with long rope shadows. She couldn’t help but wonder if someone had partially unscrewed the lightbulbs at some point, leaving her alone (not alone) in the dark. She couldn’t remember anything other than waking—if that’s what it could be called—and sitting crisscross applesauce. But a single lamp came to life, offering scant light.

Her bike was there, leaning against a wall. Windless, the doors continued their jingle-jangle, the latch holding for now. Whatever she’d once feared inside the barn was outside its walls now, and didn’t having the lights on always make things easier? All that mattered was the whiskey, and so she went to it. A handprint had disturbed the dust, fingers longer than her own, or maybe a trick of the light. She yanked off the horse stopper, took a long pull.

Behind her a rifle bolt expelled a round as the swing doors swung wide open.


Agatha’s story continues here:

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I hope you’re enjoying this strange tale so far, as well as Glenn’s illustrations, and every other piece of writing, art, music, poetry inspired by Josh Malerman’s Carpenter’s Farm. 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 few chapters of his novel-in-progress, and Shane Douglas Keene’s chapter-by-chapter corresponding poems at Inkheist, (seriously, read them), I reached out, asked Josh if he’d mind me writing a tie-in short story, he said to go for it.

I wrote Part 1 (5,500 words) in a single day, starting at around noon on a Saturday and multiple drafts / edits by midnight. The next weekend I wrote Part 2 (6,000 words), and the following weekend Part 3 (5,000 words), and then Part 4 (5,000 words) the next weekend, with a final Part 5 on the way (5,300 words). Agatha’s Barn is a novella now, close to 27,000 words.

Anyway, I hope you’re having as much fun as I am … making the best of things.


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