Archive for the ‘ Novelettes ’ Category

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 …


jars_37

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)

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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 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.


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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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“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.

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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.

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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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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.

jars_28

“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.

jars_30

“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:

agathas_barn_logo_pt4


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

agathas_barn_logo_pt2

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

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

Anyway, enjoy the woods!


jars_14

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

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

jars_15

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

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

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

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

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

Roll over, Oliver, over all of her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl’s handwriting.

Mama, Aggie said.

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

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

Fragments of the untold.

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

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

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

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

How—?

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

Agatha considered the worms.

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

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

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

Don’t say nothin’ to no one or I’ll—

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

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

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

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

How long have we been going about barefoot?

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

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

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

Agatha: No parents.

Aggie: Like us.

Agatha: All alone.

Aggie: Unlike us.

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

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

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Agatha: He can no longer hurt us.

Aggie: ’Cause he’s dead?

Agatha: Yes.

Aggie: But that hasn’t stopped him before.

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

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

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

Aggie cried, remembering the day.

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

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

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

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

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

Aggie: To the tower.

Agatha: The second one.

Aggie: …

Agatha: …

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

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

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

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

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

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

                        / blink

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

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

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

clouds float like battleships
over an ocean of asphalt

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

the world flips
down becomes up

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

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

“Where you going? Mom?”

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

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

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

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

The same loop repeated forever and ever and EVER!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She couldn’t tell for certain.

Was forgiveness a trait?

She supposed it was.

jars_19

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

20200408_182409

The fox gave up, disappeared into brush.

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

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

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

“When and what is this?”

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

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

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

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

Aggie: There’s no such thing as coincidence.

Agatha: Just appropriately timed incidents.

Aggie: But what is today, really?

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

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

Aggie: Daddy’s dirty fingernails, remember?

Agatha: Stop.

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

Agatha: Did you bury these here?

Aggie: Not that I can remember.

Agatha: Did I?

This one read ‘rise.’

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

Agatha: You wrote these?

Aggie: Not that I can remember.

Agatha: Did I?

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

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

Mother’s secret story.

A puzzle putting itself together.

The poem writing itself.

Aggie: Neat.

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

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

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

She asked the trees, and figured it was.

Agatha fed until filled, held her belly.

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

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

Openness.

Conscientiousness.

Extraversion.

Agreeableness.

Neuroticism.

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

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

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

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

When would she learn?

not ever,
until
death.

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

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

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

jars_22

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

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

Aggie: Tell me the story.

Agatha: You already know the story.

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

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

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

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

“What is it about this place?”

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

The same loop repeated forever and ever and EVER!

Falling down / falling up.

Aggie: We already know this story.

Agatha: …

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

Aggie: Earlier than that. Start with the alarm.

Agatha: Fine.

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

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

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

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

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

No answer.

“Dad!”

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

Agatha: …

Aggie: The fire.

Agatha: I’m getting there.

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

No answer.

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

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

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

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

20200408_182116

Aggie: And then?

Agatha: I don’t remember.

Aggie: I don’t either.

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

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

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

Poetry writes itself.

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

No, Aggie pleaded, she’s not there!

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

20200408_182345

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

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

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

“Mother,” she said.

She had to check that one too.

Her second vacant grave.

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

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

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

Empty like Mom’s coffin.                

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

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

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

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

20200408_182301

jars_24

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

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

“Mother,” she said, not finding her.


Agatha’s story continues here:

agathas_barn_logo_pt3


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

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


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FREE READING MATERIAL (continued)

Thousands of free eBooks were downloaded during the last Written Backwards giveaway within the first few days, which means readers need books now more than ever. So, let’s do it again. Let’s keep the love of the written word going, helping however we can.

With the recent pandemic hitting the world, many are in self-quarantine, or being forced to work from home, or have lost their jobs (or will be looking for work soon) or are under mandatory shelter-in-place, thus turning homes into offices and classrooms. And it looks like we might be in this predicament for a while.

If you find yourself needing reading material during this difficult time as a distraction from life, I am making the entire Chiral Mad series of anthologies available for free on Amazon Kindle starting midnight on 03/20/2020 through 03/22/2020. This is about half-a-million words of fiction, poetry, and artwork, by some incredible creators.

Simply click the covers for direct links in the US, or see other options below if you’re in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, or Japan (that’s as far as my reach is capable at the moment).

If you find yourself not short on cash, consider helping out this small independent press by purchasing other titles available on the www.nettirw.com page. Check out the different tabs for Novels, Collections, Anthologies, and Misc, or simply donate to help keep this press alive.

Support Independent Writers / Editors / Publishers

If you feel like making a donation to Written Backwards (even just a dollar), know that your money will be going to a good cause: helping an independent writer, editor, and publisher survive in this cruel world.

$1.00

Written Backwards can be contacted via email at written@nettirw.com, or reached on social media at facebook.com/nettirw or twitter.com/nettirw, although the press is not open to submissions at this time.

Stay safe, everyone …

CM4 - COVER (9X6)

AmazoneBook (free 03/20 thru 03/22/2020) | 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

9780999575444 CM3 CS_Cover (2nd Edition)

Amazon: eBook (free 03/20 thru 03/22/2020)| trade paperback. 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

Books-A-Million (BAM!)trade paperback

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00009]

AmazoneBook (free 03/20 thru 03/22/2020) | trade paperback. 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

Books-A-Million (BAM!)trade paperback

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00009]

AmazoneBook (free 03/20 thru 03/22/2020) | trade paperback. 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

Books-A-Million (BAM!)trade paperback

FREE READING MATERIAL

With the recent pandemic hitting the world, many are in self-quarantine, or being forced to work from home (or will be soon) to cope with both schools and businesses temporarily closing. If you find yourself needing reading material during this difficult time as a distraction from life, I am making all my books (that I can) free on Amazon Kindle starting midnight on 03/14/2020 (the soonest I can), through 03/18/2020.

Simply click the covers for direct links in the US, or see other options below if you’re in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, or Japan (that’s as far as my reach is capable at the moment).

Stay safe, everyone …

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00094]

Also available in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00073]

Also available in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan

SP - Cover

Also available in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00009]

Also available in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan,

PR - Cover

Also available in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan

All titles are also available for free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Paul Michael Anderson is also making his fiction collection available as well:

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00074]

LEAP YEAR OVERSIGHT!

Want to familiarize yourself with the strange fiction of Michael Bailey? Have a Kindle? Like stories that blend science fiction with horror? Celebrate the leap year with a free copy of Oversight

Starting midnight on 02/28/2020 through the end of 03/03/2020, have a complimentary copy of Oversight. The collection features two novelettes (“Darkroom” and “SAD Face”) and a short story (“Fade to Black”). All that’s asked for in return is a review on either Amazon.com or Goodreads (or both).

3D_layout_OS

Also available in trade paperback for less than a fancy coffee.

AmazoneBook | trade paperback. Also available in the UK, Canada, Australia, GermanyFranceItalySpainIndiaBrazilMexicoNetherlandsJapan, and Kindle Unlimited where available.

Barnes & Nobletrade paperback

Books-A-Million (BAM!)trade paperback