They all saw them
Tommy reckoned they all saw them, but only Uncle Louis said anything and only Uncle Louis fought them. Mama always waved Tommy away when he mentioned the crying baby, or the scarred man with the chicken-bone necklace who Tommy called the Shaman, or the bloody, beaten woman. “Oh, what an imagination, maybe you’ll write stories someday,” Mama would say, sending him out for chores.
Mama saw them too; he was sure of it. Daddy barely said a word about anything, so who knows what he saw, and Tommy’s older sister, Mary, well she up and run away as soon as the snow thawed last winter. She was fourteen, and Tommy guessed, she’d had enough. Lord knew where the wind blew her.
“I just can’t say what keeps getting into him,” Mama said. She stroked Uncle Louis’s bandaged hand, the kit she kept scissors and scraps of cloth and all her other tools for treating Uncle Louis’s frequent injuries was on the table before her. Their servant brought a plate of eggs and steak, setting it before the minister and his wife, a gangly woman named Pearl.
“The Lord is taking his mind before his body, I’m afraid,” the minister said. The minister was a rotund man of forty, his wife was eighteen, and they had arrived that morning in one of those new mechanical carriages. Tommy had thoroughly investigated the carriage when they came while the adults chatted. The Shaman watched from the ditch, rattling his bone necklace and whispering. That’s when Uncle Louis started shouting and tipped his clunky wooden wheelchair, spraining his wrist and cutting his chin.
Now they were eating in the middle of the morning, an obscene ordeal in Tommy’s eyes. He ate three square meals a day – one at daybreak, one at noon, and one at sunset. Pearl called it brunch, saying
everyone in France did it. The family’s ranch raised beef and they traded for eggs with the Hawkins
bunch down the road. Tommy liked to barter with Old Man Hawkins, trying to get the most eggs for as
little as possible. The crazy coot didn’t know the value of an egg from the hole in his ass.
“Sure is pretty here,” Pearl said. She had an accent, maybe it was French, but Tommy didn’t think
so. He thought she was from the South or something. They were sitting on the brick patio overlooking the
lush valley where the cattle fed, off in the distance was the snow-capped mountain.
“My father and Uncle Louis settled this ranch,” Mama said proudly. “Didn’t you Uncle Louis?
Hard work, but those two men had iron wills. Spirit of America, I say.”
“Indians wouldn’t fuckin’ leave.” Louis slurred, Mama had forced some tonic down his throat,
and he was getting drowsy. “Still won’t fuckin’ leave.”
“Pardon?” Pearl said. Her eyes peered nervously around, searching the valley and surrounding timber. Tommy knew what she was looking for, the baby, it was wailing from the woods. Pearl was too polite to say anything, and the minister was fidgety. Tommy could tell the fat bastard was trying to negotiate with the God in his brain with the sort of things he saw when he visited this farm. It didn’t add up, Tommy reckoned, but the minister had a good life selling his God to people, and he wasn’t going to
let this little blip ruin a good racket.
“Oh, there was some natives here, supposedly,” Mama said. “Daddy always said he and Uncle Louis gave them some whiskey and fifty dollars for the two hundred acres.”
Tommy hated when Mama told that story because it always riled the Shaman. Tommy could hear the bones on that necklace rattling; somewhere he was dancing, some Indian jig cursing this valley and Tommy’s family, no doubt.
“Oh, goodness,” Pearl said, “I know they were savages, but I hate to hear they were taken advantage of.”
“Oh, my dear,” the minister patted her hand, “I am sure that’s just a story. They were fairly compensated and moved on.”
Mama smiled, all her smiles were fake. Drool hung from Uncle Louis’s lips which were formed into a sneer. A moment earlier, he’d been on the brink of sleep, but now his eyes appeared lucid.
“They didn’t go nowhere,” Uncle Louis said.
Mama jumped to her feet, trying to move his chair away, but Louis grabbed hold of the table with his twisted-knuckle fingers. She didn’t want him to say anymore. Mama saw them, too.
“You hear that fuckin’ baby, don’t you?” Louis glared at Pearl. Tommy knew the true story, seen it acted out a hundred times by the apparitions.
“I…I… I hear something,” Pearl said.
“Just the wind through the trees, my dear,” the minister said.
“It was Martin’s idea to put the baby out in the woods. Cried for a day and a half. Martin didn’t have the heart to do it fast.” Mama peeled his hands from the table and wheeled him toward the cabin.
Tommy knew the rest. Louis and Martin ripped the bone necklace from around the Shaman’s chest before staking him to a post. Whipping him before burning him alive. Tommy didn’t like to think about the things they had done to the woman before putting her out of her misery with a dull knife across the throat. Tommy’s grandfather hacked at it for a good minute before finally cutting the right vein. All for this piece of land.
“Perhaps we should leave,” the minister made to stand.
“Nonsense,” Mama said. “Let me get Uncle Louis inside and we’ll finish our brunch. Do have some of the steak; it’s some of the best we’ve raised.”
“The baby drove me nuts,” Uncle Louis shouted. “I put an end to its screaming, at least I thought I did.”
His words were muffled as they entered the cabin. Mama was tired when she returned, but she offered coffee to their guests. Daddy was tending to the new calves; he didn’t have time for entertaining.
“They are buried under this patio,” Tommy said. “It’s where all their people have been buried for centuries.”
“Goodness,” Pearl said, her face slack and pale. “Tommy tells the wildest stories,” Mama said. “As I was saying, Uncle Louis and my father tamed this land. The American dream.”
The bones jangling and the baby crying reached a crescendo, and the frantic woman, with a gnarly gash in her throat and her golden frock painted in dried blood, raced across the valley toward the woods.
They all saw them, Tommy reckoned as he cut into a steak.
Dan Woessner has published work for Shaw Media and numerous other publications in Northern Illinois over the last twenty years. He has been honored with awards from the Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press, and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He has had fiction published by FOLIO, The Write Launch and Clever Fox Literary Magazine. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Northern Illinois University and currently is the proposal manager for a professional services firm. He lives with his wife, Jodi, and dog, Millie, in Sterling, IL.
GJ Gillespie is a collage artist living in a 1928 Tudor Revival farmhouse overlooking Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island (north of Seattle). In addition to natural beauty, he is inspired by art history — especially mid century abstract expressionism. The “Northwest Mystics” who produced haunting images from this region 60 years ago are favorites. Winner of 19 awards, his art has appeared in 56 shows and numerous publications. When he is not making art, he runs his sketchbook company Leda Art Supply.