Archive for the ‘ Poetry ’ Category

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

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

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


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There is The Farmer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Forgiveness,” the label read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Farmer is there; there is The Farmer.

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

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“Show me,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

rubble unable to cling to root
and soot attempting to—

All the memories there, all at once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s here, Aggie told her.

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

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

“Who are you?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The room didn’t respond.

Again, she was alone.

No, not alone.

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

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

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

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

The Farmer was elsewhere, tending to his crops.

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

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

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

to extinguish last hotspots
brought upon past soft plots

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

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

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

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

sending a simmering ground
glimmering with ash-mud

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

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

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

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

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

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

and will this never end
or go on forever

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

                                                / flash

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

                                                / flash

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

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

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

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

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

She unscrewed the lid, stuck her finger in cremains—

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

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

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

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

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A light in the farmhouse flicked to life.

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

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

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

“Show me,” Agatha said.

And he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There is The Farmer.


Agatha’s story continues here:

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I hope you enjoyed this strange tale, Glenn’s illustrations, and every other piece of writing, art, music, poetry, or what-have-you inspired by Josh Malerman’s Carpenter’s Farm currently (and soon-to-be) popping up around the Internet. Since this pandemic started, I haven’t been able to focus on writing anything other than poetry, so thank you, Josh, for getting me out of this rut! After reading the first four chapters of his novel-in-progress, and Shane Douglas Keene’s chapter-by-chapter corresponding poems, (seriously, read them), I reached out, asked if Josh would mind if I wrote a tie-in short story, he said to go for it, and so I hashed out Part 1 in a single day; I started writing at around noon on a Saturday and multiple drafts / edits by midnight. The next weekend I wrote Part 2, and the following weekend Part 3.

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


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

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

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

Anyway, enjoy the woods!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll over, Oliver, over all of her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl’s handwriting.

Mama, Aggie said.

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

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

Fragments of the untold.

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

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

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

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

How—?

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

Agatha considered the worms.

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

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

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

Don’t say nothin’ to no one or I’ll—

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

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

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

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

How long have we been going about barefoot?

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

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

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

Agatha: No parents.

Aggie: Like us.

Agatha: All alone.

Aggie: Unlike us.

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

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

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Agatha: He can no longer hurt us.

Aggie: ’Cause he’s dead?

Agatha: Yes.

Aggie: But that hasn’t stopped him before.

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

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

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

Aggie cried, remembering the day.

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

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

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

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

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

Aggie: To the tower.

Agatha: The second one.

Aggie: …

Agatha: …

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

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

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

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

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

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

                        / blink

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

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

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

clouds float like battleships
over an ocean of asphalt

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

the world flips
down becomes up

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

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

“Where you going? Mom?”

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

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

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

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

The same loop repeated forever and ever and EVER!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She couldn’t tell for certain.

Was forgiveness a trait?

She supposed it was.

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.

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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:

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I hope you enjoyed this strange tale, Glenn’s illustrations, and every other piece of writing, art, music, poetry, or what-have-you inspired by Josh Malerman’s Carpenter’s Farm currently (and soon-to-be) popping up around the Internet. Since this pandemic started, I haven’t been able to focus on writing anything other than poetry, so thank you, Josh, for getting me out of this rut! After reading the first four chapters of his novel-in-progress, and Shane Douglas Keene’s chapter-by-chapter corresponding poems, (seriously, read them), I reached out, asked if Josh would mind if I wrote a tie-in short story, he said to go for it, and so I hashed out 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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AGATHA’S BARN: A CARPENTER’S FARM STORY (part 1)

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Welcome 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 (Josh loves it, and we hope you will too). Featuring illustrations throughout by Glenn Chadbourne.

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jars_01

There is Agatha.

jars_02

There was Agatha.

Right?

jars_03

Father’d taught her how to use a hammer right, how to tweeze a nail between two fingers with one hand, tap-tap, then pull away and drive it in hard with the other. Father’d taught Agatha to look out for herself, how to tomboy, how to bury things deep in wood.

Like this, he’d say, eyes asquint, tapping the head, setting the nail in place and you’s (she always imagined the letter ‘W’ splitting apart) use a comb or fork to keep your hands lookin’ like mine all tore up and he’d hammer the soldier into the pine, three-quarter’s way, sometimes flush. If he missed and headstone-tipped the nail, he’d crater it flat, out of anger or irritation. Cigarette dangling. Kool, always. His breath a warm left-out beer. Red and white Budweiser cans, always. He’d go through a case of each over a weekend—the only “quality” time she ever spent with him after Mother’d died of pneumonia.

The 16-penny nails sometimes took five or six swings, but she rarely missed, driving them straight. Pencil dives, she’d imagined with that innocent child mind all those years ago, making perfect-round little splashes, sap or soaked-in rainwater rising to the surface. Good, Aggie, like that. There you go (sipping Bud, smoke in her hair), and don’t tell anyone ’bout this or no one will ever take you as a proper woman. Some took seven or eight; same as her age, for all she could remember. He’d ‘growed her up,’ as he’d say.

But the reclaimed wood she hammered into now smelled not wet and piney, but stunk of dry rot and bad memories, of jagged dinosaur-back mushroom shelves on wet left-out firewood. Earthy. Like her father. Like the soil beneath his fingernails. They went in despite the cries. The sound of life long dead dying again. Stripped youth, aged by force.

Father’d taught her more than one should ever learn from a parent.

Agatha thought of tipping his headstone and smiled.

jars_04

“You’re new here,” the man behind the counter said. He had a boyish demeanor about him and a short mop of brown hair, like he’d rolled out of bed that way. Mouth crooked.

She’d read enough Stephen King and’d seen enough book jacket photos to imagine what he must’ve looked like as a teenager, and this guy in his blue apron seemed much older than that but a doppelgänger nonetheless, his mind perhaps held back a dozen or so years.

Agatha nodded.

“That’s a nasty shiner,” he said.

“You got any recommendations—”

“—for the shiner?”

She wasn’t fond of make-up, of prettying up, of covering bruises. The hard lessons of life had taught her to speak true. Never hold back. Never flinch. Especially with the face.

“Whiskey,” she said, “or bourbon, I don’t care. All I see on the shelves that’s brown is Knob and Old Crow. And this,” she said, pointing at what Chris had done, “is what happens when you let your guard down, when you give another power over you. Anything good?”

Bookman’s General had what could be expected from a general store in mostly-nowhere, Michigan, but apparently had bottled shit-water for booze. The gray-green building dilapidated as all get-out, surrounded by fields of endless agriculture. Inside: dusty-bottles, as though no one in the small town drank out of anything other than aluminum.

His smile cracked. “Blanton’s,” he said, “but it’s pricey.”

“What’d’you consider ‘pricey’?”

“You look like you could use a good drink, so I’ll sell it to you at cost. Never had it before, must be good. Some fellow special-ordered, never returned, so I’ve been holding onto that bottle some time. Six … ty.” He stretched last word and put an inflection at the end, either a non-question becoming a question, or whittling the price down because of the bruise.

“Where can I find it?”

“Have it in storage. Frozen peas are back that way,” he said and pointed, then disappeared into some back part of the store. He returned carrying not a bottle but a box, which he opened on the counter in front of her, and in the box a brown cloth bag, and in the brown cloth bag a roundish honeycomb-like bottle. “Small batch,” he said.

Batch number and other information were inked by black pen on the label, by hand. Adorned on the stopper: a metal horse in full run, a rider holding on for dear life.

Running, Agatha mused, like me.

“I’ll take it,” she said. “You have any Mason jars, like for canning?”

The man in the blue smock showed her where to find them.

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She labeled the first quart “shame” and filled it to the brim with 16-penny nails. She labeled another “forgiveness” but didn’t fill it with anything just yet. No one to forgive, maybe not ever. She imagined someday filling the jar with names. Another she labeled “pity” and on a scrap of paper wrote Aggie and slipped it inside. The third jar she labeled “Mother” and filled with the memories of her, the empty jar carrying an impossible weight. Each Agatha sealed with a lid, screwed on the rings. She dug a hole behind the barn, not so deep. Mother’s second vacant grave.

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She found paint cans on shelves as old as the willows surrounding the farm; the wood planks held long-dead stories of trees, she imagined, and in one of the dented cans a dollop of sludge, brown as dried blood. She finger-painted her mother’s name on a rock, childlike, to serve as a headstone—using her mother’s maiden—and flipped it over (just another insignificant rock among rocks), smoothed out the dirt after burying the “Mother” jar.

Only the two of them’d ever know this secret place.

Movement in the tree line of willows shot adrenaline through her as she made her way back to her work, and faint weeping. Aggie’s pulse (she always thought of herself as Aggie when anxious) sent a war drum beat out her chest. The silhouette of a man with hands held to his side faded into black between trunks, as if taking a step back. Caught and then gone.

No, not him, she told herself. Not Chris, not Father.

She’d left her car at home, a beater Honda Civic cancerous with rust and oil-clogged piston-lungs, and had fled on bike instead—the old Schwinn angled against a wall in the barn. No one could have followed her. She’d left no trace, other than the empty Mason jar back home (not her home) once filled with cash labeled “freedom” in Sharpie over a tear of duct tape. She’d hidden her savings behind cleaning supplies in the garage, the jar itself inside an old Folgers tin.

“I see you,” she called to the woods.

The trees swayed in the breeze, leaves whispering, dangly arms groaning.

Agatha, not Aggie, scribbled “fear” on a label she adhered to the fourth jar. She dropped a handful of nails inside, raining metal against glass, and kept a lone nail in her palm as she hefted the hammer and stood. The tool becoming a weapon, and she held it as such.

She walked toward the spot with purpose, got within a stone’s throw of the woods. There, she waited as the chaos in her chest calmed to smooth rhythm and blues. Imagination, she knew. These woods were miles from town, the home on the property, as well as the barn, abandoned by its owners long ago, left to the putrefaction of nature to retake occupancy of the land. The nail bit into her palm, but she didn’t mind, squeezed a bit harder.

Staring into the striped camouflage of shadows and trees only created more illusion, not one shape, but countless. Many, then none at all. Branches oscillated by wind.

Alone once again. Jitters, is all, she told little Aggie.

She returned to her task of gathering reclaimed wood, piling neat stacks outside the barn. And until she patched the holes in the roof and secured the doors, she’d sleep there within a tent under its drooping rafters. If anyone happened upon the farmhouse in their travels, she figured, they’d stop there first, the main house, knock on the door, look through the windows, which would give her plenty of warning, too, to slip into the cover of the woods.

She pulled nails from her jar of fears and reinforced the doors.

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Agatha setup camp inside the barn. She sat outside her tent awhile, a hard wind testing the hinges, invisible hands pushing against the wood and rattling the handles. The moon shot flashlight beams through holes in the roof, periodically flickered by fast-moving cloud. She’d have to see to that in the morning, but for now sipped straight from the neck of the bottle, enjoying her shelter despite the frigid air. She thought of her poems, which was her initial escape. A few stanzas in particular resonated in this hiccup of thought, though she’d slipped the entire poem into a library’s copy of Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters for someone else to find:

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

The whiskey kept her warm, or the bourbon, or whatever the stuff was, and so she drank enough to give her a buzz, which didn’t take long. She tried to remember more lines, but most were gone, lost in her unpleasant-past. She never kept poetry, always slipped it somewhere else.

Night sighed exhaustively, blowing in a storm. Before she knew it, the first droplet of rain slapped her cheek. The peas had done their work and had since thawed, and so she ate them directly from the bag, not enjoying the shriveled things, but survival-eating. Peas, peace. They went as well as they could with the cold can of raviolis purchased from the general store.

She’d bought a can-opener there, a pack of lighters, nonperishables, bottled water, all she could carry on her handlebars without tipping. Paid cash. Traceability the last thing she needed.

Ever wonder why a woman sometimes has two black eyes? Chris often said, usually around “friends” as a joke, always long after her visible bruises healed. ’Cause she didn’t listen the first time. He’d think it funny, hilarious. Isn’t that a hoot?

Fuck him.

In the rain, she wrote his name on a slip of paper, put it in the pity jar next to her own, then moved everything inside the tent. The tearing zip of the zipper flap reminded Agatha of the Levis her drunken father had once swung at her one night. Their jagged teeth had breadknifed into her arm. Still had the scar. ‘Fell onto a rake playin’ in the yard,’ you’ll say if anyone asks and that’s what she always said when asked, until her memories shaped the lie as truth.

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

Part of her remembered the rake, part of her the jeans. The round spots on her knuckles, were they not remnants of icy burns of warts removed, or from another kind of Kool?

She had cozied into her sleeping bag, trying to think of happier times, curled tight and mind adrift, when a gunshot shot her upright with a bright spark of light. The round buried deep into her gut and she found herself holding the wound, but it was only her bladder. She’d fallen into microdream, passing hours in an unrealistic time-shift. Lightning. Not now, she told herself, hold it ’til morning, but both the water and the whiskey wanted out of her. She waited for the rain to let up, but it only came down harder, machine-gun firing heavy onto the failing roof, then falling as heavy drops against the thin canvas of the tent. Aggie needed to pee. Agatha told her to just use one of the damn jars, “But not in here,” she said aloud.

Wasn’t so bad outside the tent, though muddy streams had formed around the hay she’d spread across the barn floor. Another flash splintered brilliant white through every crack and knot hole, one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand and then the boom, a mad god’s bass drum pounding. The largest hole in the roof had created a waterfall in the back of the barn, but the slope of the ground, from what she could tell in the strobed light, drained water away from the structure, so no immediate need to worry about flooding.

“This is ridiculous,” she said as the barn doors jiggled.

Open this goddamn door!

Her father, only a memory now, but always there.

She thought of the fear jar, how many more nails she’d need to add to it in the morning, how many more’d be required to secure this place. She thought of the forgiveness jar, how it would always remain empty, like Mom’s coffin, how it didn’t belong with her, not here.

The barn creaked and swayed with the wind, every nail crying out in separate agony, yet holding the place together somehow, and oh how that reflected her once frail and fragile form.

Let me in! and the fists pounding—

washed clean by endless tears
            they are never gone
            in death they still run:
                        into the earth
                        down drains
                        from thoughts

Let me in! and the fists pounding—

The barn door burst open, the wet breath of the storm knocking Agatha onto her backside, the pants she’d slept in wicking the puddle beneath her. Far across the dead field, revealed by the open maw, the farmhouse stood sentinel as lightning flashed behind it, a black stamp signifying its existence. One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand and then the boom, the storm moving away, it seemed, yet still in a frenzy.

The farmhouse disappeared, swallowed by the black storm’s hungry mouth, and in its wake a soft yellow rectangular glow remained. A window, lit by candle or oil lamp. No electricity in the house, Agatha knew, because she’d let herself in one of the windows the day before, had searched every cabinet and cupboard for food. Lifeblood of water ran through its groaning pipes at a trickle, clear and minerally with a subtle taste of clay—perhaps fed by well or natural spring—but no power, no beating heart of electricity pumping through the veins of its old framework. No power in the barn either, despite switches and sockets.

Someone’s in the farmhouse. Squatting, like me.

Rolling light fluttered from one cloud to the next, and in that long moment Agatha scanned the property for cars, for signs of life. Nothing but unkempt crops, dead fields, an empty driveway. As the sky darkened and the rain hammered down as heavy nails, the light inside the farmhouse went out. No, not out, someone at the window, barely perceptible.

                        / blink

Her bladder let out into the mud, but what did it matter now?

She stared ahead, unable to focus.

The lightning blinded Aggie temporarily—the frightened girl still hiding inside her—and absorbed the woman in the window entirely (she knew in her every fiber it was not a man), and then all turned dark. She made it to eleven-one-thousand before thunder rumbled. The belly of a hungry dragon flew within the clouds, then suddenly a spotlight shone upon her. Agatha—her stronger, adult self—ran to the barn doors, pulled one side closed, then the other, and they tried pulling back. She slid the bolt latch hard, the sound of a new round loaded into a rifle, as the mess she’d made ran down her leg.

Get ahold of yourself; her mother this time, buried inside a jar, but there.

The gap between the doors was enough to peek through. Between every new flash, she watched the house, straining for what wasn’t really there, convincing herself that what-wasn’t-really-there wasn’t now heading her way, about to spring out of the darkness. She tested the doors, but the latch held strong, making her wonder if she’d forgotten earlier to latch it. She pulled, but the swing doors only slightly swung. No way they’d’ve opened on their own.

She thought of her father, lights out, sneaking inside her room, inside other places.

More nails to hammer, so many more nails.

Father’s dirty fingernails.

You’ve wet’cherself; her father this time, buried twenty years, but still there. Best clean up ’fore your mother finds you dirty like this, he’d said / said now, haunting past and present. He’d died after Mother, which wasn’t fair. She’d simply vanished, no body ever found, Father not the slightest concerned. Burying nothing, an empty casket, offered no closure.

Agatha stripped out of her clothes, trembling, imagining eyes peering between every slat and through every weather-worn knot hole, and from above, as well as below. Only her pictures at the funeral, she recalled, and showered by way of rainwater pouring through the roof. She washed her soiled clothes the same, then shivered in the cold until mostly dried-off as the rain eased, moved elsewhere. Another slug of Blanton’s warmed from the inside, settled her anxiety. Naked in her sleeping bag, dreams eventually found her, the sleep-conductor waving his magical wand and composing his horrid dreams, and soon after she woke in panic to the morning.

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With everything wet, she let the sun dry the world, and enjoyed the body heat trapped inside her cocoon. Perhaps six or seven o’clock, she figured (always o’clock as she was raised and never a.m. / p.m.). No use hurrying out to fix the roof, slip-sliding off or crashing through.

The jar labeled “shame” called her attention. ‘Accident’ went inside on strip of notepaper, along with ‘Anxiety’ and multiple What-dad-did thoughts, simply written and placed in the jar as the numbers ‘7’ through ‘13,’ sometimes duplicates, her age for whatever bad thing wanted to surface. The glass jar quickly filled. There were enough bad things to warrant multiple containers, the little strips of paper smashed in layers. The jar labeled “forgiveness” called her too, though she had nothing to put inside. “You’ll forever remain empty,” she told the jar. The jar said nothing back to her. The others she’d filled with nails, one 16-penny for every thought—each entirely forgotten, to be repurposed to hold together this temporary shelter.

Agatha spent the next hour on poetry, managed to write a few stanzas of free verse, letting it flow as it may. She thought of this one in particular as “Paper Earth” and like the other’s she’d written over the years (she had written and hidden hundreds throughout the world), for as long as she could remember, came from a mysterious pool of streaming thought:

We make our way to the writing ground,
paper-white, as far as any eye can see,
where exhausted trees no longer shed.

What time is it, but does that matter,
and can life be measured such a way?

Rain will soon seal everything together,
forlorn-fallen tears cementing in layers,
where blackened trunks stand as sentinels.

What to write, fill the thoughts of few,
as each word cuts deep, every last thing.

We wait patiently for the clouds to part,
expecting the hands of angry gods,
yet humankind’s fingers do the pointing.

Who’s fault is this, and should we care,
one way or the other, and is it too late?

Countless stories are carved in the earth,
until every last broken finger is bled,
not-so-forever tales of what once was.

We were here, some layers will read,
existence recorded semi-permanently.

But well before the expected rainfall,
Father’s clock of life will tilt, tilt, tilt,
as Mother lets out her sighing breath.

You were never here, She will whisper,
and His hourglass will flip, begin again.

She ripped the paper from the notebook, folded it once in half, twice, thrice, then set it inside an unlabeled jar, sealed it like the others. What to call this one, she wondered, meaning the container. “The other voice?” she said, considering. “The pool?” she said. “Un-Aggie, or Anti-Agatha?” You’re not right in the head, talking to yourself like this, she thought, which meant it was time to get out of bed. She dressed into dry clothes from her backpack. She had only a few outfits on her, figured that’s all she’d need until deciding where to go. Wisconsin, maybe.

The uncertain fears from the night before she pounded as nails into planks to cover the larger gaps where siding had otherwise dilapidated or had weathered away as fine as stardust. The roof could wait, she knew, and so could replacing the soaked hay. What mattered now was confirmation of the main house being empty, that she was truly alone on this farm.

As an afterthought, she took out the poem and slid it into her pocket instead. She’d hide it in the world like she had all the others. No sense keeping it. No sense keeping the forgiveness jar either, if nothing’d ever go in it, so she took that with her too, and left the barn.

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The storm had slicked the earth, every surface glimmering.

Hammer at her side, she and the forever-unforgiven jar of nothing went to the house. She imagined different conversations, what she might be asked, how she might respond if someone were there. On my bike and riding past this place when the storm hit, she’d say. The hammer? Oh, I found that in the barn. Protection, she’d say, but from what? I camped in your barn, sir, to get out of the rain, see, and—

No one was home, though. Not a car in sight. The place deserted for years, perhaps. Dead weeds—wet dead weeds now, finally watered—sprouted around the place. Haunted, came to mind, which sent a shiver down her spine from what she’d thought she’d seen the night before, that little rectangle of yellow light, but as she approached, curtains at that window were drawn at a diagonal, as if one side of the rod holding them had fallen.

Would have seen a triangle of light, she wondered, not a square. And no movement inside, for nothing inside (besides spiders and other bugs) had stirred for some time. Years.

The front door would be locked, she knew, because it had been locked the day before. The only way in, she knew, was the kitchen window on the opposite side. She went to the door anyway, set the jar down, and knocked. The doorbell only depressed. No electricity.

You were never here, Agatha mused, one of the lines of the poem in her pocket.

She knocked again.

“Hello?”

See, no one’s here, Agatha told her younger mind. She then used the back of her fist to pound against the door, loud enough for anyone in the house to hear. She recalled grade school chalkboards, little Aggie licking that same part of her hand, pressing it against the chalky green to make a wet baby-foot image with her spit, then licking the tip of her finger and tasting the chalk and making five little toes. Baby feet. You’ve got baby feet, child-of-mind. No one’s here.

Aggie dared her older self to try the knob, teasing her that it would turn and the door would open because someone was waiting for her—a dare as juvenile as closing one’s eyes in a bathroom while holding a candlestick and chanting Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary and opening them to find you’ve conjured her apparition as a witch or ghost in the mirror, an impossible act of catoptromancy.

Still locked, she discovered, as expected.

Yet to be absolutely certain, she’d need to go inside, again.

The kitchen slid open with ease, allowing entry by an old-fashioned weighted window. She placed the forgiveness jar on the counter next to the sink, levered herself inside. A rat scurried across the floor, but rats’re cowards unless cornered, so it didn’t bother her. Aggie’s mom’d had a pet rat, Silky, one of younger Agatha’s earliest memories. Put it back in the damn cage, her father’d say, and mom’d say “Cages are meant for criminals, for those who do bad things,” though Aggie wouldn’t learn the difference between the two for a while.

Sunbeams yellowed the room and brought warmth to the old house, turned cobwebs invisible. She called out another hello, and the house answered silence.

She’d checked the kitchen the last time through, cabinets and drawers: silverware and plates, glasses and mugs, all one could expect in a kitchen, pots and pans, an abandoned coffee maker. But no food; scavenged over the years by squatters, maybe, by high-schoolers and college kids daring each other to the door, some making it inside and devouring, or devoured.

Room by room this second time through, she found more nothing; or, more appropriately, lots of things no longer with purpose, perhaps waiting for purpose. Things, waiting.

The place was fully furnished, but abandoned. Everything covered in off-white sheets to collect dust, as if every lamp and couch and cushion required rest without its occupants, or pretended to play ghost while dressed in linen.

Aggie pushed her onward.

She found the window in question, curtain rod tilted as she’d seen from outside. She set it right, then looked out the window at the barn, imagined an older version of herself staring across the field at her older self staring back. Come nightfall, she’d be the silhouette. Behind her was the candle, aged-yellow like the wallpaper. She smelled the wick, unburned for years. The small room had a porcelain toilet and tub like the bathroom of her youth, no shower. A splash of déjà vu: a familiar crack in a tile by the door, the same wooden-framed mirror hung slightly kinked.

Similar, she convinced herself, but not the same as back home.

And then it all came rushing in at once, the not-so-long-ago past. Chris pounding on the door. Picking the lock with a hair pin and barging inside as she cried on the throne. The red in his face, eyes wild. His smoky red aura of hate. The way he grabbed her wrists, both in one of his giant mitts, twisting, her bones grate-grinding as he pulled her into the adjacent room, tossed her with ease against the wall where she feta-crumbled to the floor. Say his name three times in the mirror under the glow of candlelight and he’d come for her again, and again, and again …

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Father’d taught her how to use a hammer right, how to look out for herself, how to tomboy, how to bury things deep in wood. But Chris’d wanted more than tomboy, and had taught her the past could be repeated, that adult life could mirror one’s youth.

Like this, he’d say, forcing her down, pulling her hair back, setting her mouth just right with ever-strong fingers, the ooh’s anything but fake (she always imagined the letter ‘O’ splitting her mouth apart one day), and cry again or clamp down’n I’ll rip your fuckin’ jaw right open as he’d have his way with her, any ol’ way, sometimes in a rush. But finally Agatha’d had enough and headstone-tipped the nail that was his head, cratered him out of anger and irritation alike with the hammer. Eye dangling. Cool as always. His breath a panicked gasp. Red spattered against the white, always. Thought-flashed like this in her mind, always. And she’d left him that way, a little damaged, a little dead but not quite. She’d ridden away from him on bike.

It had only taken one swing, like father’d taught her, and she hadn’t missed. Cannon ball, she’d imagined with that far-but-innocent adult mind only days ago, making a perfect-round splash of hot gore, not so little, the sap of his mind rising to the surface. Good, Agatha, just like that, she’d told herself, then. There you go, breathe (sipping panic-attack wisps of air, then guzzling deeper wheezes), and don’t tell anyone ’bout this or no one will ever take you as serious. If her father’d ‘growed her up’ at seven or eight, Chris’d ‘growed her up’ at twenty-seven even more so. She imagined she brought his IQ down to single-digits with a single swing.

Stripped age, youth by force.

Chris’d taught her more than one should ever learn from a spouse.

Agatha thought of tipping his headstone and smiled.

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She stayed in the farmhouse until full dark, the passing of time immaterial to death, as light is insignificant to night. Light is insignificant tonight, little Aggie mused. Her older, wiser self lit the candle in the bathroom mirror with one of the lighters she’d purchased from the general store, from the Joe Hill or Owen King lookalike, and made her way to a shelf next to the fireplace and pulled a copy of their father’s novel Lisey’s Story—about the language of love, of all things—and slid her poem between the pages for another to find, maybe someday, maybe never. The empty jar labeled “forgiveness” found a new home as well, placed in the pantry on an equally empty shelf. Someone might find a use for it, or it might go unnoticed until the very end. She returned to the mirror, stared through herself at the small yellow window behind her.

“Agatha, Agatha, Agatha,” she said to the woman in the tent: her reflection.

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The next morning she hammered the rest of the “shame” and “pity” nails into the roof of the barn, careful with the ladder and with her footing. She drove every nail straight, most in a single swing or two, rarely three. A few small craters, some cracks in the reclaimed wood, but she wasn’t staying long. The weak barn needed another week, long enough for her bruises to turn from purple to yellow to gone. And then she’d be gone.

Black shapes watched from the woods, peering between willow trunks then slipping back. Black shapes watched from inside the farmhouse.

Agatha visited her mother each morning, knelt beside her, flipped over the rock. “Hi, mom,” she’d say (her parents always mom and dad, never Mom and Dad). “I know you’re not really there, but are we ever? I’ll never forgive dad. And I’ll never forgive you for leaving me with him, for what you let happen. And I’ll never forgive Chris for what I let happen. And I’ll never forgive myself for what I’ve done …” She’d usually trail off, then, her mind pulled to the woods or to the house, or to her unfinished work on the barn.

The roof still leaked during hard rains, but not as much.

She still cried nightly, but not as much.

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“Shiner’s looking better, barely noticeable,” the man in the blue smock said. It was a decent walk to Bookman’s, but nice after the change of seasons. “Last of the rain for a long while,” he said.

She’d left her Schwinn leaning against the wall in the barn, brought her backpack this time, took only what she needed, and bought from him only what she’d need. She’d left the tent, her sleeping bag. She’d left the Blanton’s there as well for someone else to find. Once pulled from the barrel and bottled, whiskey, or bourbon in this case, never went bad. Days or years or generations from now, someone’d stumble on the bottle, pull off the metal horse stopper and take a slug, and it’d be just as good. Not much in life was that certain. One’s time tended to spoil.

Where she’d go, she didn’t know. She only knew that her new path started at the edge of the woods, at the willows, for the shadows there continued to call for her, and she could no longer ignore them, lest she stay in the barn forever, haunted by their hiding and seeking.

Not to mention the new ghosts who’d recently taken over the farmhouse, perhaps a bunch of kids dared to touch the door, to ring the doorbell, to knock. One in particular, Oliver, seemed as though he’d stay a while, maybe until the end of summer, maybe forever.

“How was it?”

“How was what?”

“The spirits.”

Agatha smiled. “Best I ever had. You got any books?”

He pointed behind her at an old spinning rack of paperbacks.

Inside an old dog-eared copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, she slipped in a folded piece of paper, a snippet of a poem she couldn’t quite finish during her short time there:

The shell,
same shade as the rest,
begins to crack.

Life explodes,
reborn.

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There was Agatha.

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There is Agatha.

Right.


Agatha’s story continues here:

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

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed!

The story continues soon …


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.

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Written Backwards can be contacted via email at written@nettirw.com, or reached on social media at facebook.com/nettirw or twitter.com/nettirw.

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

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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

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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]

MISCREATIONS: E-BOOK PRE-ORDER!

eBook Cover Display

The official release date of Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors is February 18th, 2020, but the eBook edition is now available for pre-order on Amazon Kindle!

For Amazon outside the US, the anthology is available in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Japan, and is a part of Kindle Unlimited where available.

What happens when we make monsters? What happens when we confront the monsters inside ourselves? These are the grotesque things that should never have been. These are the beasts that stalk our twisted pasts. These are the ghosts of our own making that haunt our regrets. They are the blood on our hands. They are the obsessions in our heads. They are the vengeance in our hearts.

Bram Stoker Award-winning editors Doug Murano & Michael Bailey present the next anthology by Written Backwards, featuring a foreword by Alma Katsu (The Hunger, The Deep), and illustrations by HagCult (such as this one):

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The eBook edition (as well as both the trade paperback and hardcover) includes 23 illustrations, one for each of the following stories and poems:

“A Heart Arrhythmia Creeping Into a Dark Room” by Michael Wehunt
“Matryoshka” by Joanna Parypinski
“Butcher’s Blend” by Brian Hodge
“Operations Other Than War” by Nadia Bulkin
“One Day of Inside/Out” (poem) by Linda D. Addison
“One Last Transformation” by Josh Malerman
“Brains” by Ramsey Campbell
“You Are My Neighbor” by Max Booth III
“The Vodyanoy” (poem) by Christina Sng
“Imperfect Clay” by Lisa Morton
“Spectral Evidence” by Victor LaValle
“Ode to Joad the Toad” by Laird Barron
“Only Bruises Are Permanent” by Scott Edelman
“My Knowing Glance” by Lucy A. Snyder
“Paper Doll Hyperplane” by R.B. Payne
“Not Eradicated In You” by Bracken MacLeod
“Resurrection Points” by Usman T. Malik
“The Old Gods of Light” (poem) by Christina Sng
“Sounds Caught in Cobwebs” by M.E. Bronstein
“Umbra Sum” by Kristi DeMeester
“A Benediction of Corpses” (poem) by Stephanie M. Wytovich
“The Making of Asylum Ophelia” by Mercedes M. Yardley
“Frankenstein’s Daughter” by Theodora Goss.

And for a very limited time (12/07/19 through 12/08/19), you can pre-order the trade paperback edition through Night Worms, and have the opportunity of owning a physical copy a month earlier than the official release date in February. Click the image below to sign up for their subscription package. First-timers also get a $5 discount.

MISCREATIONS - Mock Cover

Yes, Night Worms will be rolling out their next subscription package soon, which will contain a trade paperback edition of the anthology (image above), along with two other similarly-themed books. Get yours a month before anyone else!

Then, on February 18th, 2020, Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors will be released simultaneously in eBook, trade paperback, as well as in a special hardcover edition (image below).

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MISCREATIONS: NIGHT WORMS

What happens when we make monsters? What happens when we confront the monsters inside ourselves? These are the grotesque things that should never have been. These are the beasts that stalk our twisted pasts. These are the ghosts of our own making that haunt our regrets. They are the blood on our hands. They are the obsessions in our heads. They are the vengeance in our hearts.

Bram Stoker Award-winning editors Doug Murano & Michael Bailey present the next anthology by Written Backwards: Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors, featuring a foreword by Alma Katsu (The Hunger, The Deep), and illustrations throughout by HagCult.

The trade paperback edition is now available for pre-order (for a very limited time) by Night Worms! Order from Nigh Worms and get the book a month earlier than its official release date (02/18/19). The eBook edition can be pre-ordered on Amazon, or by clicking the cover below.

MISCREATIONS - Mock Cover

Yes, Night Worms will be rolling out their next subscription package soon, which will contain a trade paperback edition of the anthology (cover artwork above), along with two other similarly-themed books. And you can get your mitts on a copy of this anthology an entire month before its official release on February 18th, 2019.

What can you expect?

The following fiction and poetry, each featuring an illustration:

“A Heart Arrhythmia Creeping Into a Dark Room” by Michael Wehunt
“Matryoshka” by Joanna Parypinski
“Butcher’s Blend” by Brian Hodge
“Operations Other Than War” by Nadia Bulkin
“One Day of Inside/Out” (poem) by Linda D. Addison
“One Last Transformation” by Josh Malerman
“Brains” by Ramsey Campbell
“You Are My Neighbor” by Max Booth III
“The Vodyanoy” (poem) by Christina Sng
“Imperfect Clay” by Lisa Morton
“Spectral Evidence” by Victor LaValle
“Ode to Joad the Toad” by Laird Barron
“Only Bruises Are Permanent” by Scott Edelman
“My Knowing Glance” by Lucy A. Snyder
“Paper Doll Hyperplane” by R.B. Payne
“Not Eradicated In You” by Bracken MacLeod
“Resurrection Points” by Usman T. Malik
“The Old Gods of Light” (poem) by Christina Sng
“Sounds Caught in Cobwebs” by M.E. Bronstein
“Umbra Sum” by Kristi DeMeester
“A Benediction of Corpses” (poem) by Stephanie M. Wytovich
“The Making of Asylum Ophelia” by Mercedes M. Yardley
“Frankenstein’s Daughter” by Theodora Goss.

Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors will be released simultaneously in eBook and trade paperback, as well as in a special hardcover edition (artwork for the full wrap-around cover below).

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Want it before anyone else? Click here!

WIRED TO THE HEART

The latest Written Backwards interview is with Tlotolo Tsamaase, a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and articles on architecture. Her work has appeared in literary magazines all over the world, and her latest, a novelette called “District to Cervix: The Time Before We Were Born,” will appear in the forthcoming anthology Prisms, co-edited by Darren Speegle and Michael Bailey, to be published by PS Publishing.

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The interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

Our paths crossed years ago (2015, believe it or not) when I was reading submissions as Managing Editor for a certain small press. Out of all the submissions received, yours kind of punched me in the face. Hard. I can still feel it. I was instantly drawn to your prose, and the world you created. The story is one of incredible value. In fact, I was this close (I’m holding my fingers together until they’re almost touching) to having you sign with that particular publisher. My only hesitation was that I was constantly thinking, “This is not small press. This is something more.” But of course, I also wanted your novel to help launch the new science fiction line that publisher was trying to get off the ground (it never took off, and we have since parted ways). I even had a few artists work on cover options. Long story short (and I won’t go into the details of that particular project), as with most small presses, there was a long wait from the powers-that-be to make decisions, and after some time you pulled the novel and let me know you were going try it with an agent. To which I enthusiastically yelled, “Yes!” (scaring my cats) and “This needs to happen!” (or something like that).

What I’ve learned about you since then as that not only do you write fiction, but you also write poetry, as well as nonfiction articles on architecture. Your story “Virtual Snapshots” appeared in Terraform and was shortlisted for a Nommo Award, and you have short fiction published in The Fog Horn (“The Palapye White Birch” and “Eco-Humans”), as well as Apex magazine (“Murders Fell from our Wombs”). Your poetry has been featured in Elsewhere Lit (“Home?” and “Fetal Sundays”) and Strange Horizons (“Constellations of You” and “I Will Be Your Grave,” which was nominated for the Rhysling Award).

I mention all these titles specifically (and with links) because they too tell a story. They provide hints as to what your writing is like, and perhaps what it’s about. Your titles are as intriguing as that of your novel, which I hope to someday see in bookstores.

Now, I probably butcher your name every time I say it aloud, although for some reason typing it is not a problem at all (I don’t think I’ve ever mistyped it). I usually pronounce it, “Lot-lo Sa-mace” with both t’s either silent, or slightly emphasized with the tongue.

So, the questions:

Michael Bailey: How do you pronounce your name (and I apologize if I’ve said it wrong these last 4+ years)?

Tlotlo Tsamaase: Oh, the t’s are definitely not silent. Here’s how you pronounce my name Tloo-Tlo and my surname Tsa-mah-ah-seh. Using phonetic sound symbols, a friend advised that the first name is /tlōtʊ:/ Hopefully that was close to helpful!

MB: Later this year, a short novelette of yours will appear in the anthology Prisms, which I co-edited with Darren Speegle for PS Publishing, and I’m proud to say (not only from my mouth but have heard it from Darren as well), that it’s one of the most intriguing stories either of us has ever commissioned. Like your other published works, it too has an interesting title: “District to Cervix: The Time Before We Were Born.” What can you tell us about that story?

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[ mock cover created in early development ]

TT: Thank you so much! The story is told from the male protagonist’s POV who, through guilt, reveals a secret to his close friend about how he betrayed his friend the time before they were born to explain. This line explains the gist of the story: “And who are we? Sexless souls warring to be born through the granddaughter—the way we want. My application to be born was approved several days ago … You choose who you’re born from, how, in what sex and all that shit.” The granddaughter of a household is pregnant with two children, and there’s a congregation of women in the kgotla deciding on the gender of these children and basically the roles they will serve in the eco-city they live in. Ultimately the decision lies with the sexless souls who, existing in a different realm, must fight and / or kill for the gender, ethnicity they want, as well as which family to be born in. The stakes: you could die and never be born.

MB: You have fiction published in magazines and anthologies around the world, which means you have a passion for short fiction (along with a passion for poetry). What first drew you to reading and writing short fiction?

TT: From a young age, I read children’s books and whatever novels we had in the house, which were adult titles like Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, etc. I loved creating with my hands, building tiny houses, or writing out stories for my friends and I to act out. In primary school, my Standard 6 teacher found creative ways to get us into reading more, so I’d go through a million books in a week. Eventually, I wrote long romantic stories that were darker than romantic but remained as unfinished stories. It was also during my university years when I chanced upon Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. From the first page, I felt so transported; his writing was intermixed with voice and longing. And Helen Oyeyemi’s prose was chilling but had some dark aesthetic to it. It entranced me so deeply I wanted to learn how to do that, so I began reading as a writer and reading short fiction. Then a writer friend advised that I start out with short stories, which is good practice for writing. That’s when I also began experimenting in poetry.

MB: What brought you to poetry?

TT: Rumi! There is so much magic and beauty from Rumi’s poetry. Reading poetry, I found, comes with so many interpretations and by drawing so many meanings from the metaphors you’re able to relate and play around with words. I love Stone Bird Press’ Spelling the Hours; you just melt with the words. I attend local slam poetry sessions, and these artists are so talented; listening to a poet recite in Shona or Setswana and mix that with English makes their voice and language achingly beautiful. Going through these works teaches you what you can do with your writing.

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MB: What can you tell us about your nonfiction?

TT: I studied architecture at the University of Botswana, which is very intense and literally exercised my creative muscle. With that background, I wrote architectural articles for a local newspaper, Boidus. This included reviewing local designs and writing about built environment news. I would also write articles about people who had a creative background and were making a living out of their passion. It was a very enjoyable experience!

MB: Most of your short fiction (which sometimes dips into long fiction range), from what I have read, have a science fiction bent, but with so many truths hidden within. Is science fiction your passion, or do you find yourself writing other genres, or perhaps crossing multiple genres?

TT: Science fiction is my passion, and sometimes it tends to dive into dystopia. I have found myself writing in other genres like magical realism, which is quite an exciting genre to discover. Once before I dipped into fantasy, but by far my favorite genres to write in are science fiction and magical realism.

MB: You refer to yourself as a Motswana writer (Motswana being the singular form of “Batswana,” or also a person from the Tswana ethnic group in southern Africa). What can you tell us about your heritage? What is it like to write (or to be a writer) in Batswana?

TT: Writing from Botswana can be quite difficult in terms of character portrayal and showing various cultures as it’s writing from a non-western perspective, so it does feel difficult to fit in, especially if you’re writing from different genres or stories that don’t bow down to stereotypical representation. In some instances, the writing can feel like a process of erasure instead of creating a place of belonging. As much as that is a disadvantage, our backgrounds and culture are holy to us, allowing us to pour our experiences, background or culture into our work. Before you had to find a community online in order to interact with writers because locally there weren’t any authors to talk to or connect with. But the local writing community is growing: we currently have a book festival that invites authors; and just recently I was judging a local writing competition whereby we also get to mentor some of the writers. So we’re getting more and more people keen on writing, that’s really another way of preserving culture and showing the world our different voices.

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[ Tlotlo’s story “Who Will Clean Our Spirits When We’re Gone?” appears in the July 2019 issue of The Dark magazine ]

MB: The interviews I conduct are intended for all types of creatives (those writing fiction / nonfiction / poetry, those making music, designing books, painting, crafting; in other words, anything wherein the person involved is creating somethings from once-nothings). What would you like to share with those just dipping their toes into the ocean of creativity?

TT: It requires passion and discipline. I say this because I’ve had some writers who come to me with an interest to write or to learn how to write, but they don’t want to put in the work. They want shortcuts and mostly want their writing to be an instant money-making machine. Sometimes you have to do a lot of research, or you have to go through a draft a million times until you become sick of it.  When I started out, my writing was terrible. I spent years in novels’ pages, sleeping in their prose, pulling it apart until it bled into me, and I was saturated with a slight understanding of how to have a voice, which I returned with to my writing, and I failed and failed and keep failing by collecting rejection letters; instead of giving up, I used these rejection letters that came with constructive criticism as teachers. Working on your art can feel like war sometimes. But if you’re passionate about it, you will do anything to birth it into something. Having mentors is also good. I was in Justina Ireland’s Writing in the Margins mentorship program as well as Kate Brauning’s Breakthrough Writer’s Boot Camp, and both mentorships were very invaluable in learning about the industry and refining your work.

MB: What are you trying to tell the world with your own creations?

TT: My concepts tend to be sci-fi what-if questions that explore a limitless world and its impact on its characters. It looks at societal issues, deals with love and belonging. Lately my writing looks toward racism, internalized racism, as well as oppression of women and abuse of children, all with a sci-fi bent as is seen in “Murders Fell from Our Wombs.” But most importantly my writing tries to show multi-faceted characters with an African background appearing in genres they hardly feature in as main characters, like science fiction, fantasy and magical realism. There is freedom and sometimes happy endings that I hope readers will enjoy.

MB: If we were to look into the future, what would we expect from Tlotlo Tsamaase?

TT: Well, I would hope for my writing to be so successful that I can make a living from it. It would be wonderful if my writing could reach masses and inspire people as other works have inspired me.


Learn more about Tlotlo Tsmaase on her website, www.tlotlotsamaase.com, or follow along on Facebook or Twitter,


If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy some of the others. Previous interviews in this series include:

“The Hunger” with Alma Katsu
“Beginning to End” with Chuck Palahniuk
“A Little of Everything” with John Langan
“King of Illustrations” with Glenn Chadbourne
“Creator of Heroes” with David Morrell
“A Visit from the Tooth Fairy” with Zoje Stage

And coming soon:

“Not-So-Silent” with Tim Lebbon
“The Time It Takes” with Lisa Morton
“Poetry in Motion” with Marge Simon
“Spinning Yarn” with Josh Malerman
“What the Eyes Tell Us” with Daniele Serra
“Word Therapy” with Ramsey Campbell

MAD for CHIRAL MAD

To celebrate all things Chiral Mad (including exciting news that cannot yet be shared), each of the four volumes in the series are on sale April 29th through May 4th. eBook titles range from $0.99 / £0.99 to $1.99 / £1.99 in both the US and UK. In other words, you can get all four volumes of Chiral Mad (digitally) for about the price of a fancy coffee. Click on any of the images for direct eBook links.

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CHIRAL MAD 4, an anthology of collaborations, is also available in hardback for $34.95 and trade paperback for $19.95. 4 short stories, 4 novelettes, 4 novellas, and 4 graphic adaptations make up this mammoth book of wonders, but here’s the catch: every single part of this anthology is a collaboration, including a co-introduction by Gary A. Braunbeck & Janet Harriett. Bram Stoker Award winners Michael Bailey and Lucy A. Snyder even collaborated on the co-editing to bring you an incredibly diverse and entirely collaborative dark fiction experience. eBook sale links: US / UK.

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CHIRAL MAD 3, an anthology of psychological horror, is also available in trade paperback for $17.95. Nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology, the third act contains 45 illustrations throughout by Glenn Chadbourne, over 20 stories by the likes of Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell, Mort Castle, Josh Malerman, and Richard Chizmar, 20 intertwined poems by the likes of Elizabeth Massie, Marge Simon, Bruce Boston, and Stephanie M. Wytovich, as well as an introduction on the state of horror by Chuck Palahaniuk. eBook sale links: US / UK.

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CHIRAL MAD 2, the sophomore set, is also available in trade paperback for $16.95. This anthology of psychological horror containing twenty-eight short stories by established authors and newcomers from around the world. Featuring the imaginations of David Morrell, James Chambers, Usman T. Malik, Emily B. Cataneo, John Skipp, Gary McMahon, and many others. The book also features the Bram Stoker Award-winning novelette “The Great Pity” by Gary A. Braunbeck. eBook sale links: US / UK.

CM1 Cover (2nd edition).jpg

CHIRAL MAD, the book that started it all, is also available in trade paperback for $16.95, and contains twenty-eight short stories by established authors and newcomers from around the world. Featuring the imaginations of Gord Rollo, Monica J. O’Rourke, Patrick Lacey, Meghan Arcuri, Christian A. Larsen, Jeff Strand, John Palisano, Jack Ketchum (his first of four appearances in the series), and many others, along with an introduction on asymmetry by Thomas F. Monteleone. eBook sale links: US / UK.

Sale ends May 4th.

PSYCHOTROPIC DRAGON, AND OTHER THINGS …

I will be incredibly busy over the next few months (already have been), so I thought I’d post about my current projects. In other words, you won’t hear from me in a long while (perhaps months, maybe not until summer). I have a lot of stuff on my plate, in various stages of development, so what follows is a summarized run-down.

Why am I so busy? I have been taking on editing and book design projects for clients, proofreading, editing and copyediting for Independent Legions Publishing, and have recently taken on a part-time role as Developmental Editor for New Degree Press to help new writers bring their books to life (and you can add “ghostwriting” to my resume ). Meanwhile, I am trying to finish a science fiction thriller called Seen in Distant Stars, and writing fiction and nonfiction to perhaps make a few sales and help pay the bills.

So here goes …



PSYCHOTROPIC DRAGON

This is a composite novel that’s been “in the works” since 2009 (yes, ten years!). Many have been waiting patiently for this book, and hopefully the wait won’t be much longer because I consider the manuscript done. Word-count is a little under 90,000.

Psychotropic Dragon (ARC) - Cover

Why “composite” and why the long wait? Well, it’s part short novel, part novella, part novelette, includes a few children’s fables throughout, and four illustrators have been involved with its development over the last ten years (48 illustrations total!). I should also mention  John Skipp played an early part in this thing coming together, as well as my three amigos: Thomas F. Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson, and Douglas E. Winter.

So, where does it stand, then, this beautiful whatever-it-is?

My agent is busy shopping this monster. With a little luck and patience, perhaps it will sell (which could mean a while longer before it finds print). We have high hopes, though, so we’re aiming high. It’s worth the wait (I promise), and while the book works on its own, Psychotropic Dragon has many tie-ins to my other works, most notably the two previous composite novels, Palindrome Hannah and Phoenix RoseOther tie-ins include the novelette Our Children, Our Teachers, the children’s book Ensoand various work from Inkblots and Blood Spots.

The cover image above is from an “Advance Reader Copy” I created to make it easier for pre-readers to grasp the overall concept, and to perhaps gain a few more blurbs for promotion. This image has kept the project going, always on my mind.

One of my first pre-readers (and originally a collaborator, believe it or not) was Dallas Mayr, aka Jack Ketchum; while he couldn’t contribute to the fiction, when all was said and done, he offered a generous cover blurb instead. He loved this thing almost as much as I do: “Addictive, scary, and at times, mind-blowing.” Can’t ask for much better than that, right? Other collaborators have been in talks, but eventually I decided to finish this thing on my own, at least in terms of the text.

The illustrators? Ty Scheuerman worked on early concepts, Daniele Serra on illustrations for the novelette and spot-pieces throughout, Glenn Chadborne on the novella, and L.A. Spooner on the short novel and fables. Insane, right? Whether or not the illustrations (48!) will make it into the final product is yet to be determined, but here are a few teasers (section titles and visuals). Let’s just say this book is wild! No matter what, Psychotropic Dragon will someday have a “special edition,” which will include everything.

ORIGINAL CONCEPTS (Ty Scheuerman):

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SOMNAMBULISM / I SUMMON LAMBS (novelette / Daniele Serra):

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A ROSE / AROSE (novella / Glen Chadbourne):

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DRAKEIN (short novel / L.A. Spooner):

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As for the fables, they are titled ECLOSE, SCARLET HOURGLASS, ACHERONTIA ATROPOS, and APODEMUS. And a few of the other chapters connecting all this insanity: THE BEGINNING OF THE END, DEATH’S-HEAD, LIFE-MAGICENSŌand THE END OF THE BEGINNING. Like I mentioned before, this book is something wild!

Soon (haven’t I said that before?) …



SEVEN MINUTES

This book, which was recently trimmed from 100,000 words to 80,000 words, is the strongest thing I’ve ever written, and happens to be nonfiction. I’ll be reading a seven-minute chapter (called “Seven Minutes”) at StokerCon in May. Advance Reader / Burn After Reading copies are currently making the rounds while my agent shops this one around the nonfiction market (although nonfiction is something new for both of us).

Seven Minutes (ARC) - Cover.jpg

I wrote the manuscript in 23 days (most pages on an old Royal typewriter, about 75,000 words). 23 days happens to be how long the Tubbs fire burned (the setting for this book), and how long my cat Bram went missing (the end of the fire and the day he was found, one in the same), and so I made that my goal: to finish an entire book in under a month! The third draft was completed on day 23, the first anniversary of the day the Tubbs fire was finally extinguished, the day Bram was found.

The book is about the fire that took our home and many others (somewhere around 5,600 from the Tubbs fire alone), changing our lives (and many others’) forever. The book is structured like a therapy session. It contains poetry and lots of hard truths, with the narrative bouncing from first-person to first-person collective to second-person.

This one is close to the heart.


THE IMPOSSIBLE WEIGHT OF LIFE

This would be fiction collection number three (roughly 90,000 words, so lengthier than my previous collections), and will feature short fiction, long fiction, and a few poems (one quite long). Three of the stories have been nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards*, and most of the others have found their way into anthologies over the last few years. Most are autobiographical, in one way or another, and most were written during my recovery from Loss of Bilateral Labyrinthine Function.

My agent is shopping this one around as well (yes, I have her very busy), but here’s a teaser of its tentative contents:

“Time is a Face on the Water”*
“Speaking Cursive”
“The Long White Line”
“Möbius”
“Cartwheels” (poem)
“Hourglass”
“Ghosts of Calistoga”
“Darkroom” (novelette)
“Fade to Black”
“The Fire” (poem)
“The Other Side of Semicolons”
“SAD Face” (novelette)
“Essential Oils”
“Gave”
“A Murmuration of Souls”
“Fragments of Br_an”
“I Will Be the Reflection Until the End”*
“Shades of Red” (poem)
“Our Children, Our Teachers”* (novelette)


PRISMS:

This is an anthology I co-edited with Darren Speegle, to be release soon through PS Publishing. Expect more information on release dates and pre-ordering and whatnot as soon as its available. We’re hoping for a 2019 release date, if all the stars align. This is not the cover, but a mock-up I created during early development:

PRISMS_COVER_tease.jpg

And here is the official Table of Contents (and word counts). Yes, this book will be something incredible:

“We Come in Threes” – B.E. Scully (4,200)
“The Girl with Black Fingers” – Roberta Lannes (4,400)
“The Shimmering Wall” – Brian Evenson (4,300)
“The Birth of Venus” – Ian Watson (7,400)
“Fifty Super-Sad Mad Dog Sui-Homicidal Self-Sibs, All in a Leaky Tin Can Head” – Paul Di Filippo (3,500)
“Encore for an Empty Sky” – Lynda Rucker (6,700)
“Saudade” – Richard Thomas (3,900)
“There Is Nothing Lost” – Erinn L Kemper (5,200)
“The Motel Business” – Michael Marshall Smith (4,900)
“The Gearbox” – Paul Meloy (6,100)
“District to Cervix: The Time Before We Were Born” – Tlotlo Tsamaase (8,500)
“Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” – Chaz Brenchley (5,400)
“Daylight Robbery” – Anna Taborska (5,400)
“The Secrets of My Prison House” – J. Lincoln Fenn (4,600)
“A Luta Continua” – Nadia Bulkin (7,200)
“I Shall but Love Thee Better” – Scott Edelman (10,500)


MISCREATIONS: GODS, MONSTROSITIES & OTHER HORRORS:

This is an anthology I am currently co-editing with the always wonderful Doug Murano, to be released through Written Backwards. Expect this one in early 2020. Here is a glimpse of what we’re thinking for the cover. Follow along here!

MISCREATIONS - Mock CoveR

As always, expect an incredible anthology! The first two story acceptances:

“Brains” – Ramsey Campbell
“Resurrection Points” – Usman T. Malik


Things I’ve written lately:

“A Bouquet of Flowers” (2,000 words, nonfiction)
“Oll Korrect” (3,500 words, fiction)
“Emergence of the Colorless – Exordium to Conclusio” (6,200 words, fiction)
“L’appel du Vide” (in progress, fiction)

Things I’ve read lately (and enjoyed), and things I am currently reading (and enjoying):

There There by Tommy Orange
Baby Teeth
 by Zoje Stage
Inspection by Josh Malerman
The Hunger by Alma Katsu

That’s about it for now …

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