Edward M. Turner
Above a log cabin the pale half-moon shone from between thinning clouds. Inside the cabin a woman sat in her chair by a window and weaved baskets. Her concentration was absolute. The bulrushes quietly swished as she thumbed the blades over and under. A glass kerosene lamp provided light.
The squeak of a windowsill, as if it was being leaned on, caught her attention. It came from the outside. She heard something clear its throat, and sensed a presence watching her weave. Every night she expected it. Every night it took her unawares.
The grandfather clock chimed three times.
She put down her task, and soon fell into an easy rhythm.
Dawn. Beyond the window lay a view of blueberry fields for hundreds of feet in all directions. Sunbeams struck morning dew on cobwebs strung between leafy bushes and the reflections were like strings of glittering diamonds. A wisp of mist hovered over the bluish fields before it disappeared between the cracks of a covered well.
She rose and donned a white nightgown. Controlling her breathing, she did her morning exercises. After that she got a large piece of uncooked meat out of an icebox and took it outside in her slippers. The top of the well was opened and the meat thrown in. She wiped her hands.
Then she cooked herself a breakfast of eggs and bacon on the gas stove.
This time Edward knew he’d blown it. The end of the semester was here with no place to go. His roommate had told him why in no uncertain terms.
“Edward, you’re an out and out asshole.” An old story.
No field trips, no family willing to welcome him home with open arms, no money for rent. His savings from working in a cement factory the previous summer covered attendance at a state college and very little else. The thought of returning to the factory made him want to retch.
He peered at the pale half-moon outside his dormitory window. One more week, he thought, and I’ll be working at the YMCA for a room. No meals except the fast food joints and after a while they sucked. And they were getting expensive.
Edward sat up straighter. He could visit his aunt in Maine. She lived in a rustic cabin. It would be like camping out. She’d put him up for a few weeks. Maybe.
The gum Edward chewed had lost its flavor so he took it out and stuck it under the wooden frame of the bed. He wondered if he should take off his grungy sneakers before hitting the hay. His roommate’s bed, that he sat on, was neatly made with hospital corners, unlike his untidy nest.
He stretched out, sneakers and all, bunched up the pillow and yawned as his eyes closed. He put his feet under the blanket, and was soon fast asleep.
Cumulus clouds with dark patches beneath sailed along on a warm breeze and sometimes blocked the sun. When this happened she’d pause in her painting and wait for the bright sunlight to return. Behind her the log cabin had its door and windows open to air out the inside.
A brown sparrow in a blueberry bush swooped down and landed by her tripod. It chirped and peeked up at her. She reached in a cardboard box and brought out breadcrumbs and scattered them. The sparrow darted at one, then another. Other sparrows, as if waiting to be invited, appeared and picked at the crumbs. A blue jay and a golden finch joined them.
The sun came out. She returned to her painting.
Edward hadn’t had a ride in two hours. His knapsack grew heavier with every step. On this potholed country road no one picked up hitchhikers. Around a corner he came upon a small grocery store with two gas pumps out front. Signs in the window advertised butchered meat and sale prices on canned goods. When he entered the store he found local men standing or seated by a beer cooler.
They nodded to him. Edward ignored them. He stopped at the cash register.
“What town is this?”
“Where ya headin’?” asked the clerk.
“North Lars Hill. I’m looking for a Mrs. Russell. “
“Yes. If I can find out where she lives.”
“And you are?”
“Her nephew from Massachusetts. I’m on vacation from college.”
Edward shifted his feet.
“Up ahead, take the first left onto a woods road. Stay on the road and it will lead you to where she lives.”
“It’s obvious you’re from away,” said the clerk. “Folks around here are a bit shy when someone new comes by.”
“Arsehole,” one of the loungers mumbled.
“Is this North Lars Hill?”
“It has no sign.”
“Not at this end of it. Kept getting shot up by the locals.”
Edward didn’t have far to walk. White birch and spotted alders overhung the woods road. A warm wind swept through the forest, bending the branches of spruce and tall pine and green fir. Shadows gathered along the ground because of thickening clouds. Edward wondered if it might rain.
The overhang of tree limbs made the road seem like a tunnel. He began to feel claustrophobic. The straps of the knapsack chafed at his shoulders. The chirping of birds suddenly ceased. Further on the trees became less dense. He came across an overgrown field filled with pucker brush and witch grass. A path led to a cellar where lilacs grew. The lilac blossoms were long gone.
Edward heard something. It came from behind the cellar. A soft thumping. His eyes searched the field and woods, and returned to the cellar. The noise stopped. The silence was almost palpable and made him uneasy. Then he heard a hollow splash.
His head whipped around to a stand of saplings. Edward could feel the hair on the back of his neck rise. A fishy smell seemed to emanate from the saplings. He quietly moved on. The wind fluttered the leaves of poplars and choke-cherry trees. He picked up his pace and glanced behind him repeatedly. What sun there was slipped beneath the horizon. He became aware of birds chirping once again.
The sun set amidst thickening clouds. The air became damp. Tonight it will rain, she decided. My garden needs it.
Soon she would cook her dinner and sleep for the night ahead. She went inside the cabin and made sure the door was firmly shut and locked.
On the wall above the mantelpiece hung a portrait. It was of a clean-shaven man with streaks of gray in his hair, but in the prime of life. She stared with intensity at the portrait, swallowed. Her lips moved and formed soundless words. She shook her head and her expression turned grim.
A rumble of thunder brought her out of her reverie. The coming darkness prompted her to light a kerosene lamp. She adjusted the wick. The illumination flared and outlined the furnishings of her one room cabin.
A wooden table with two chairs occupied the middle. Across from that was a cast iron sink with a bucket of water and dipper beside it. A queen-sized bed stood in one corner along with a nightstand. A wicker chair sat by a window. On the table she had put a vase with lemon yellow buttercups, white lady shippers, and sweet fragrant ruby red tulips. Coats and work shirts hung from wooden pegs near the door.
She opened the icebox and took out eggs and a block of pungent cheese. That’s when she heard it. Running feet. It made her freeze. Then came a frenzied knocking at the door. Something pulled at the knob.
“Mrs. Russell, open up! Please open up, please!”
She came to the door and listened.
“Mrs. Russell,” this time the voice was less desperate. “It’s Edward, from Massachusetts. Your sister’s son.”
“Yes. It’s dark out here. I saw your light. May I come in?”
She grabbed a thick wooden walking stick and unbolted the door. Edward opened it and hesitated when he saw her holding the stick.
“What’s the matter with you?” she asked.
“I’m afraid of the dark.”
“Come in, then.” She stood aside but still held the stick. “Stand where I can see you. Over by the table.”
“May I take off my knapsack? I’ve walked miles with it.” Edward dropped the knapsack to the floor and grunted with relief. “It’s so dark without streetlights.”
She stepped around him and shut and bolted the door.
“You’re a surprise.” She gestured toward a chair. “Have you eaten?”
He sat with a sigh.
“No. Not since last night. I’ve been hitchhiking all day. Do you have any water? I’m dying of thirst.”
Donna got a cup from the cupboard and filled it with the dipper. She handed it to him and waited as he drank it down. When he passed it to her she filled it again and passed it back. He burped and excused himself.
“You’re welcome. Care for an omelet?”
“Yes. That’d be great. May I call you auntie?”
“If you want.” Donna put a fry pan on the gas stove. She lit the burner with a wooden match. Then she cracked some eggs and added grated cheese.
He looked around anxiously.
“Is there a bathroom I can use?”
“There’s a pot. You can’t go outside.”
“You have an outhouse?”
“Yes, but you can’t use it tonight.” She half-flipped the eggs and tucked strands of gray hair behind an ear.
“Why?” Edward stood. He towered over her.
“It’s dark out, that’s why.” She put two plates on the table.
“I guess I’ll wait.” He sat back down.
Donna and Edward ate supper. Donna saw him glance around. His eyes lingered on the portrait over the mantelpiece. Then over to the queen-sized bed.
“Did your husband pass away?”
She took a quick look at one of the windows.
“When you’re finished eating, there’s a root cellar where you can sleep.”
“Take the pot with you. I need my sleep. I’ve lost enough as it is.”
“No buts,” Donna said in a unyielding tone.
Edward shrugged his shoulders.
She pulled a metal ring set in the floor that revealed a trap door.
“I have spare blankets you can sleep on and a pillow. It’s not cold so don’t worry about that. You stay down there till morning. And be quiet. I need my sleep.”
Edward did as he was told.
He sat in the dark for some time. All he could hear was the tick of the grandfather’s clock and the steady patter of falling rain. Edward began to nod. The clock’s steady tick lulled him. He fell asleep and slept until the clock chimed twice. He opened his eyes and thought he was still asleep for everything was dark. Then through cracks in the floor above he saw a light come on.
The creak of the floorboards told him Donna moved about. The creaks stopped and he guessed she must have sat down. The rain let up. Now all he heard was the clock ticking. That and whispering. Or was it . . . weeping?
Yes, weeping. Quietly. A secret weeping, probably aware of him down in the root cellar. Might it be for the absent husband? Was he in fact deceased?
Edward wished he could comfort her, which wasn’t like him. His aunt with her long fine hair and classic features now seemed noble, and long suffering. Why was she alone out here with no electricity, no running water, no TV, or even a radio?
The weeping abruptly ceased. He stood and thought to climb the ladder, push open the trapdoor and see for himself.
Edward halted with his hand on the ladder.
The name came from within his mind.
“You’ve come.” That was his aunt’s whisper.
Edward became aware of a mist seeping through the floorboards. He watched as it hovered along the underside of beams in the floor. A finger of it lowered and seemed to seek him out. A voice entered him.
Edward’s tongue clung to the roof of his mouth. He couldn’t speak or answer. The name was a confirmation of who he was. The mist withdrew. He heard a panting, and soft words of endearment. Edward’s eyes lowered. He slept.
Edward groaned and sat up, his body stiff from sleeping on the dirt floor. He climbed the ladder, pushed open the trapdoor and climbed out. No one was in the cabin. He poured himself a cup of water. Through a window he saw his aunt, sitting before a tripod and painting on a canvas. He carried the cup of water outside.
“Good morning, Auntie.”
“Mornin’, Edward. I trust you slept well.” She squinted at him. “Sorry about the accommodations. I don’t get many visitors.”
Edward kneeled and looked around. He didn’t see anything that reminded him of civilization. Beside the cabin he saw a shed, and wondered if that was the outhouse.
“By the way, why are you here?” his aunt asked.
“Just to visit. My mother talked a lot about you when I was a kid. She said your husband researched a cure for the common cold. I guess he didn’t find one.”
Donna remained silent. She brushed a few strokes.
“Colds mutate with each person so a cure can’t be found. Even I know that. It’s easier to walk on the moon.” Edward became aware of the covered well. “What’s that?” He got to his feet and walked toward it carrying the cup.
“Stay away from that,” Donna called.
“What is that odor? Something fishy. I smelled it along the woods road.”
“That one’s polluted. I use another well.”
Edward thought he heard a splash. He looked at Donna. She didn’t say anything, and continued to dab at the canvas. He came and stared at the painting.
It was of a nightscape with a cabin in the center. A half-moon shone amidst a field of stars. There was the well with its cover off. The moonlight highlighted a shadow slouched to one side.
“What does it mean?”
“It means I have to hike out and get groceries. Especially meat.”
“Want me to come?” he offered, half-heartedly.
Donna peered up at him.
“No. Not this time.” She rose and put away her paintbrush after draping the painting with a drop cloth. Then she stretched and bones popped in her back.
“I’m getting so old.”
“I’ll keep an eye out in case anyone arrives unexpectedly.” He grinned.
“You do that, Edward. There are art books you might browse through.”
Donna strapped a basketpack on over her shoulders and left without saying another word.
He’d searched and eventually found where she hid her money—in a tin box under the cupboard. There was almost two thousand dollars in cash. Beside her bed were coins in a large glass jar and in her nightstand was a checkbook. He decided to avoid taking anything but cash. For now. He’d filched a hundred dollars in twenties.
After that he noticed a wicker chair situated by a window. It appeared to be a work area for his aunt. There were pieces of dried bulrushes fallen to the floor and paintbrushes in a jar. He raised the sash and looked out the window at more blueberry fields and, of course, woods in the distance. His gaze dropped. Beneath the window the green grass had been worn away. Edward smelled the fish odor again. It clung to the cabin wall and hung in the air. The hair rose on the back of his neck for the second time in two days.
Edward turned away and walked outside. It was twilight. He looked across the fields to where the woods road disappeared into the trees. He saw no one. Donna was late, unless she visited friends. Edward lit a kerosene lamp. There was nothing else to do. He ate some carrots he found in a pantry. He was still hungry and the thought of cooked meat, and perhaps mashed potatoes, made his mouth water.
The outside light faded altogether. Edward went to close the door when he happened to look at the tripod. The drop cloth had been lifted and folded over the top. He was sure she had covered the painting. He closed the door and thought about locking it. When she returned he could always unlock it.
Edward shot the bolt and sat in the chair by the window.
He was aware of how quiet it was. And how the heat of the day had stayed in the cabin. He paged through the extensive collection of art books. He looked through her paperbacks with authors like Mary Stewart and Ursula LeGuin. He also observed she had Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.” Edward remembered the movie and that he yawned all the way through.
There were also books by male authors. Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum.” Charles Gayley’s, “Classic Myths.” Edward Turner’s, “Rogues Together.” Most of these Edward had heard of but never read. It all made him tired. He never did get enough sleep the previous night. He needed his sleep too. His eyelids lowered . . .
. . . and opened wide. A noise woke him. He looked about in confusion. Everything was the same. Except for a mist in the middle of the room. It slowly congealed into a man. The same man as in the portrait above the mantelpiece.
Only this man was naked, and his teeth were white and huge.
Edward flinched. The thing had spoken and his name seemed unholy coming from its lips. As if it was not meant to speak aloud.
“Uncle Tobias?” He saw the thing smile at its name.
“Your research. Did it—”
“I need meat to sustain my form.”
“But I . . . .”
“No buts.” Its eyes bulged and it didn’t walk so much as float toward Edward. Edward fell out of the chair and crawled backwards. The thing towered over him. Its breath smelled of fish. Edward put his hands up in supplication. Now there was a face to his fear of the dark.
“Uncle . . . .”
Donna stopped by the well and threw in a slab of bloody beef. Her shoulders ached from lugging the full basketpack. She opened the cabin door then shot the bolt and laid the pack on the counter with a sigh. The grandfather’s clock chimed twice. She hurriedly put away the groceries and made herself a cup of tea. She perceived that Edward’s knapsack had been opened and the contents scattered about the room.
She sat down in her chair by the window and picked up a softcover of short stories—Katherine Anne Porter’s, “The Old Order.” Soon Donna was engrossed, and her concentration was absolute.
The squeak of a windowsill, as if it was being leaned on, caught her attention. It came from the outside. She heard something clear its throat, and sensed a presence watching her read. Every night she expected it. Every night it took her unawares. She put the book down, and soon fell into an easy rhythm.
The grandfather clock chimed three times.